Schools face mental health crisis

Sunday Times, 04.10.15, Britain's top schools have warned that they are facing an “unprecedented” outbreak of self-harm, eating disorders and depression among pupils weighed down by exam pressures, social media and family breakdown. Parenting classes, therapists and “early-warning” tests for children as young as eight are being used to try to help troubled children, according to the head teachers, who are publishing for the first time figures detailing the extent of the problem. Chris Jeffery, Chair of HMC's Wellbeing Working Group and Headmaster of The Grange School, Cheshire is quoted.

On the eve of its annual meeting, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents the country’s most famous schools, including Eton, Harrow and Westminster, has given The Sunday Times exclusive figures from a survey of 65 of its schools showing:

  • More than 85% of them were concerned about the amount of depression among their pupils, an 85% increase on the proportion five years ago; 42% said it was a “significant” concern, compared to 12% in 2010
  • A 57% increase in schools reporting self-harm as a problem and a 65% jump in the number worried by the amount of pupils with eating disorders.

By contrast the levels of teenage drinking, underage sex, drug use and smoking have dropped compared to five years ago, according to the survey, suggesting that teenage rebellion has been replaced by a surge in mental instability.

Nearly all the 65 leading schools also admitted they were grappling with how to stop children misusing social media, for example by “sexting”, sending out naked photos — a 109% rise in five years — while 82% of the schools polled reported cyberbullying as a problem. Five years ago less than half that number said they were concerned about online bullying.

“There are now unprecedented levels of concern among heads over pupils disclosing online threats, depression, self-harm and eating disorders,” an HMC spokes­man said. Nearly all the schools surveyed say they are having to put on classes for parents who are asking schools how they can help their children cope.

Social media was cited most often by head teachers (43 times from the 65 schools) as the biggest cause of concern but there are also understood to be growing anxieties about the effect of exam stress on children.

Chris Jeffery, head of The Grange School in Cheshire and chairman of the HMC’s wellbeing committee, said: “Young people in all types of school are experiencing pressures like never before. They worry about getting the right grades in public exams — where an A or A* seems the only acceptable currency for aspirational young­sters to deal in — a place at their chosen university and a good career beyond that so they can pay off increasing levels of student debt, all while constantly trying to look their best on social media.”

In an article, published today on The Sunday Times education page, Jeffery writes: “In publishing these results today we are acknowledging that the young people need more help in coping with much of what life throws at — and demands of — them .  .  . It’s too important an issue for us to stay silent, whatever the risks to the reputation of our schools of speaking up.”

Last week, head teachers were keen to stress that they were making huge efforts to detect and treat the problems they see, and said they were keen to work with state schools, which have similar difficulties but less resources. Half of the schools surveyed have hired counsellors to provide therapy with many bringing in psychiatrists and therapists from outside.

Half now have links with a psychologist and 94% said they were running parenting classes to work with parents “on issues of pastoral concern”. One in 10 spend more than £100,000 a year on such support and nearly half have spent £50,000 a year.

Schools that have increased their pastoral care in recent years include Benenden, the girls’ boarding school in Kent where Princess Anne was a pupil, which is hiring a director of wellbeing; Harrow, which has a full-time psychologist; and South Hampstead High School for girls in London, which holds classes for parents on the pressures facing teenage girls.

Andrew Halls, head at King’s College School, Wimbledon, said: “All heads think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ You would be amazed how many schools have a significant number of pupils seeing someone at The Priory.”

Bernard Trafford, headmaster at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, said every year a staff member had to sit with a child on suicide watch until help arrived: “It tears me up when I know someone is self-harming.”

Robert Eyre, 19, a former pupil at the Royal Grammar School, was diagnosed with clinical depression when he was 17 and in the middle of his A-level course. His father, from whom he had been estranged, had died a year earlier. “It got to the point where even getting out of bed in the morning was terrible. I was missing so much school. There was a huge amount of pressure. I didn’t reach out to anyone, I thought I should be able to deal with it on my own,” he said.

The school nurse encouraged him to see his GP, who referred him for counselling and prescribed antidepressants. He took a year off and on his return “smashed my A-levels”, scoring two A*s and an A. He is now a student at University College London, brave enough to want to dispel the stigma surrounding mental illness and keen to get the message out to other young people that “it’s OK not to be OK and if you are not OK, you should speak to someone”.

At some schools eight-year-olds are being tested using an “early-warning system” de­sign­ed to try to pick up pupils at risk. The online questionnaire pioneered at Monkton Combe School, Bath, and now in use at Wellington College, Berkshire, and a number of London prep schools, is taken twice a year by pupils from the age of eight. Certain kinds of scores sound alarm bells and the school then intervenes using a range of measures to support the children thought to be vulnerable.

Jo Walker, who developed the system, said worrying scores were often found in pupils whose families were in crisis, including parents getting divorced, falling ill or who had been made redundant.

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