Adolescent Mental Health

In his blog, 20/03/15, HMC member Keith Budge, headmaster of Bedales Schools outlines his thoughts about what has brought about an increase in mental health issues among adolescents and what parents and schools can do to help children keep mentally healthy.

At last government has woken up to the crisis in adolescent mental health, with the Chancellor announcing £1.25 billion extra spending over the next five years on mental health, with particular support for adolescent mental health. The upsetting accounts of parents striving to get their children the care that they need through the NHS, the awareness amongst us heads about the number of students in our schools whose mental health is of concern and the raw figures that illustrate this crisis are all deeply worrying.  The Sunday Times, which is doing really good work on this score with its campaign to improve the mental health of Britain’s schoolchildren, cites the grim statistic that in 2014 more than 17,000 children were admitted as emergency psychiatric cases last year – twice the number of four years ago.

The experience of parents trying to get help for what is after all an illness, with the potential to mar young lives no less than other well publicised illnesses that affect adolescents such as cancer, is salutary: waiting times that are long that the alternatives are either not having the help when it is desperately needed or going private. The step which we all trust government and NHS funding bodies have taken is true recognition that this is an illness which, like any other illness, needs treatment.

Two further questions: what has brought this increase about?  How can parents and schools help our children keep mentally healthy?

Responses to the first are speculative and anecdotal, but I have little doubt that the pressures on young people to succeed at school – academically, socially and outside the classroom – have increased since the great recession. At the same time the pressures that we as adults – whether as parents or as teachers – often unwittingly – push down to our children have increased – pressures “to succeed”, which means securing a job and lifestyle which ensures fulfillment, material success and (always nice to have it all) social admiration.

What else has changed since the haphazard and, let’s face it, inglorious days of the 1970s when my lot bumbled through? Social media, the increased use of prescription drugs to deal with mood, society’s acceptance of recreational drugs as part of many children’s growing up and high expectations about personal happiness and fulfillment; after all today’s adolescents and twenty-somethings are the offspring of baby boomers and their successors who have (for no reason after all other than historical luck) enjoyed the rising living standards and a relative secure job market that cannot any longer be taken for granted.

So what can we do in schools and at home to keep our children in the best mental fettle?

1) Help young people develop resilience and self-esteem through experiencing activities that challenge them, often things outside their studies.  (Jenni Brittain’s blog on the Independent Schools Council website deals more fully with this.)

2) Accept that all of us as parents and teachers have a responsibility for children’s mental health and that we model the behaviour that our children will emulate.

3) In schools, ensure that the structures and the support systems are in place to give the students the ability to work their way through as many of their own problems as they can and to have the skills to help other students – crucially, knowing when they need to gain adult support from a teacher. (Our forthcoming conference for pastoral staff –Thriving in a Changing World – could help here.)

4) Being proactive with simple things like mindfulness, exercise, healthy eating.

5) Listening and being attentive to their needs.

6) Having the right support network – pastoral staff, counsellor and then referrals as necessary to additional health professionals, GPs and more specialised, which takes us back to the Chancellor – let’s trust that money makes a real difference.

Read Keith's blog here.