The Telegraph, 11.1.17, when Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Monday that she would put an end to the “hidden injustice” of the stigma that surrounds mental health, I guess she was gratified by the reaction. At last, people said, Government’s taking the issue seriously writes former HMC Chair and Wellbeing spokesperson Dr Bernard Trafford, Headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle.
With the promise of better training going into secondary schools and the trial of a more joined-up system and a review led by Mind Chief Executive Paul Farmer and mental health campaigner Lord Stephenson, the school sector certainly felt listened to at last.
After all, we’ve been complaining for years about the ticking time-bomb of mental illness – or, rather, of successive administrations’ failure address the problem.
Three cheers for the PM, then? Well two, certainly: the third will ring out when schools and families are equipped to work together and prevention becomes as important as cure.
In recent years, Government has appeared deaf to schools’ pleas for support. There is real frustration. In the North-East, where I work, local primary heads describe the profound difficulties that their pupils, even the youngest, have with anxiety, depression and other mental illness, all stemming from the deep-seated social problems in severely deprived parts of the region. A promise of action on mental illness from David Cameron a few years ago proved empty: meanwhile schools have been stretching resources to provide counselling or other therapies where their pupils are struggling.
Independent schools are, of course, generally better placed to find resources to meet the massively increased demand for counselling and other services. In 2015 the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) had the courage to face down the inevitable consequent “mental health crisis in private schools” headlines and publish its research into mental health problems across its 280 UK independent schools and what is being done to tackle them, kicking off a long-overdue debate about promoting good mental health in all schools, in every kind of setting.
That debate has told us that schools in both sectors find they are having to do more and more to help children while health services, particularly CAMHS, face cuts and ever-longer waiting times for desperate young people.
There’s much to be learnt from this innovative work, whether it’s training up pupils to teach each other about wellbeing or implementing early intervention due to better tracking of changes to pupils’ attitudes and behaviours.
Or even Mental Health First Aid Training, which the Prime Minister promises for secondary schools. Again, independent schools have arguably led on this up-skilling of teachers for several years, including in my own school: those of us with a proportion of staff (and, in some schools, senior students) now trained up, know how excellent and cost-effective (but still costly) such training is - though we would argue that the need for this extends to junior schools.
This isn’t a sectoral issue, however. The reason why some independent schools have been able to move more swiftly will lie in the greater resources they have at their disposal. There are mountains to climb in all schools to tackle these problems: the most important thing is that schools of all kinds work together to share what has and hasn’t worked. Money for programmes and practitioners is needed, for sure. But so are sharing and cooperation between teachers and parents who know the children concerned: that can come far more cheaply.
Speaking of money, Theresa May has earmarked an extra £15m for community care. There is clearly a hope of providing diagnosis swiftly (and, crucially, cheaply) via expanded online services. Some schools may find this useful, but personally I’m sceptical: to me it smacks of seeking cheaper alternatives to what’s needed most, genuine face-to-face help.
Moreover, government cannot ring-fence that £15m for mental health services alone: cash-strapped NHS health trusts may find other priorities still more pressing. Besides, in the massive scale of the NHS, £15 million will be butter spread very thin.
What children and their schools need above all is an enormously increased level of resource that can provide swift and effective intervention when mental health issues arise. Government needs to mount a massive programme to promote good mental health – including looking in the face some of the criticisms made of its education policies by its own former mental health tsar Natasha Devon. Perhaps the Farmer/Stephenson review will lead into this, though I fear government’s response may be to place an excessive emphasis on workplace policy and enforcement.
So how should schools work better together, especially when the state sector is facing overall funding cuts and constant changes to curriculum and exams? As part of grasping the nettle, HMC and individual schools such as my own host major regular conferences, share speakers, knowledge and expertise with maintained sector colleagues in order to develop and spread those proactive approaches and develop resilience in the young.
In the end, schools can only do so much. There is a chronic shortage of health professionals available to engage swiftly and effectively with children troubled by mental illness. Current waiting times for a CAMHS appointment, a matter of months, are simply unacceptable in a young life.
Theresa May has recognised the problem: I hope she’s recognised the scale on which any solution will have to be planned. I’m saving my third cheer for the time when independent schools’ experience is seen as a force for good, and we see real change: in Paul Farmer’s words, “in the differences made to people’s day-to-day experience”.
Read more © The Telegraph