Report on mental and emotional health issues among pupils should be a warning to all schools

For over a year now I have been the Chair of a working party set up by HMC (the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, the representative body for the country’s top independent schools) to support member schools with the changing pastoral issues that we face. We did a piece of research earlier this year which showed that mental and emotional health issues in our schools are becoming much more pressing, just as they are in all types of school across the country.

We have worried about sharing our research more widely, knowing that the press would be likely to jump on it as a story: with ‘top schools causing mental health crisis’ type headlines. So the HMC leadership took the decision to release it as an exclusive to one paper in the hope that the true intentions of doing so -to contribute our research and voice to the wider debate on such an important issue, to the benefit of all children (not just our own)- would be better respected.

The Sunday Times thus published two articles this morning based on this research. Despite the ‘shock’ headline, the front page piece is pretty fair, doesn’t blame our types of schools for causing a ‘mental health outbreak’ (for a change) and helps us contribute to wider societal thinking on this vital issue.

The second is an opinion piece that I wrote and which is published in its entirety (with some amends that I’m not altogether convinced by, especially a little bit of over dramatisation in the first paragraph but nonetheless accepted) and which enables us to put forward our view in a more controlled and thoughtful way.

I have reproduced the article below, in case anyone wants to read it in full, given that you would otherwise either have to buy a copy of the paper or have an account to get behind the paywall to do so.

It is worth pointing out that the parents of the pupil anonymously referenced in the first paragraph gave their express permission for those details to be used; I would not have dreamed to have submitted it without their blessing.

It is not normal for me to find myself in tears on my early Saturday morning walk by the River Weaver, but that was exactly what happened one sunny spring morning earlier this year.

The tears were those of relief, as well as of the imagined horror of how it would have felt to lose “one of mine” to suicide, after an incident in which it initially appeared a pupil at our school had tried to kill himself. It emerged subsequently that the whole thing was unintended and not what it at first appeared: an experiment gone wrong, not even a cry for help. Nevertheless, that hugely promising young life was only saved by the quick intervention of pupils, staff and the arrival of an air ambulance.

People understandably assumed the worst; the shock to the school community was enormous. It initially seemed that this was an almost inevitable extension of the steadily growing number of mental and emotional health issues that we had been dealing with in school over the previous three years. It’s a picture familiar to colleagues in schools across England.

What’s causing this outbreak? I think it’s a combination of factors, not all of them negative. On the one hand, I believe that schools have become better at spotting — and helping with — the signs of disordered eating, self-harm and anxiety. The growing social shift towards destigmatising mental health conditions means that youngsters are becoming quicker to seek help. In addition, there is evidence in our school at least to support one of the most interesting findings of the newly published report by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC): that our pupils have become better at looking after each other, as on several occasions the gateway for us to offer
support has opened when a group of friends have raised a concern or brought a needy classmate to see us.

On the other hand, we have seen an increase in pressures on young people from the national exam system (where an A or A* seems the only acceptable currency for aspirational youngsters to deal in, manifested in university offers, league table judgments and their own expectations). Parents, who only want the best for their children after all, can get caught up in that too, and overdo the support they offer or pay for. The well-intended general messages schools can unwittingly give to all pupils can also help: when we reinforce the importance of hard work and necessity of exam success, our words are often directed at the very people who take them least seriously, while the ones who are already working their best and don’t need to hear them are those who actually do the bulk of the worrying and push themselves even harder.

Away from academia, HMC heads cite the all-pervasive, sometimes all-consuming influence of social media as the most pernicious and important factor in unsettling the equilibrium of the youngsters we care for. The effects of constantly comparing “my [messy and confusing] insides” with “others’ [carefully curated] outsides” can be highly corrosive to self worth, and make it hard to believe “life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful”.

The internet also provides a huge resource to fuel disordered thinking and the techniques by which it can be manifested.

Ultimately, I would like to see the explanation for the trends that so many schools seem to be experiencing move from anecdote and assumption to harder research and thus much more well-founded explanations. We could then know more about the problem we’re tackling in order to tackle it better.

The working group that I have been chairing for HMC, the results of whose initial research are being published today, has been set up to explore ways of helping schools — all schools, not just ours — to manage better the problems they are faced with and to find ways of heading such issues off at the pass through early intervention. We feel it is vitally important that we contribute what we can to the debate around a topic that is of such crucial importance to the wellbeing and lifelong flourishing of all young people, but we do so with a degree of anxiety based on past experience. The desire to present issues of self-harm, depression and eating disorders as primarily a “private school issue” whenever our schools speak out seems almost irresistible to many in the media. The evidence does not support such a simplistic conclusion.

Indeed, independent-school pupils can represent only a small proportion of the 1.1m young people the British Medical Association estimates would benefit from mental health interventions or of the 20% of our nation’s young people that the Mental Health Foundation suggests experience some kind of mental health problem in any given year.

In publishing these results we are acknowledging that the young people in the schools we represent need more help in coping with much of what life throws at — and demands of — them. In doing so, we want to contribute our perspective and expertise to a discussion that has the wellbeing of all the nation’s young people at its heart. And we want to join the voices -Jeremy Corbyn’s most notably last week- calling for an even higher priority to be given to the funding of mental health services for all young people.

It’s too important an issue for us to stay silent, whatever the risks to the reputation of our schools of speaking up.

By Christopher Jeffery, Chair of the HMC Wellbeing Working Group and headmaster of The Grange School, Hartford.