What can be done in Suffolk schools to improve children’s mental health?
With a tenth of young people suffering from mental ill health, investigations reporter Andrew Hirst takes a look at the support available at schools in Suffolk…
The terrifying bouts of anxiety which led to Helen’s attempted suicide first started when she was asked to read aloud during her high school lessons in Suffolk.
At 13 years old she said her fears of making a mistake and being laughed at by the other students began to dominate her thoughts. Before long she had started to feel ill.
“I got so dizzy I couldn’t listen to what the teacher was saying as I was just terrified that they would ask me something,” said Helen, whose name we have changed.
“I couldn’t think straight and sometimes I’d have to leave the classroom because I was panicking so much. I’d have nightmares where I was being asked a question and I gave a wrong answer and everyone in the lesson was laughing at me. Some days I was so worried about going to school I was sick.”
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Helen is one of thousands of children in Suffolk and north Essex who suffer from mental ill health, which affects 10% of young people nationally.
Recent figures show that referrals for under-18s to the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) rose by a staggering 84% between 2011/12 and 2014/15.
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But despite this, children’s services receive just 7% of the funding provided to adult mental health, which itself is underfunded compared to physical health services.
Kathryn Searle, deputy service manager with NSFT, said that with more than 350 schools and around 110,000 pupils in Suffolk alone, finding help for everyone in the right place “remains a challenge for us and our partners”.
“That’s why it’s so important to ensure support for mental health issues is as easy as possible for young people to access so that they don’t suffer in silence and can get the help they need to keep themselves healthy and safe,” she added.
Campaigners in Suffolk say schools have a key role to play in spotting early warning signs and finding ways to help students who are suffering.
Schools themselves have highlighted significant rises in the number of pupils reporting mental ill health, with the pressures of exams, bullying or social media often blamed for the increase.
For Helen, the feelings of anxiety became so overwhelming that she attempted to take her own life and became fixated on suicidal thoughts.
“School used to be a distraction but it isn’t anymore and I don’t know why and that worries me,” she said. “All I do is think about different ways to kill myself and then I’m expected to do work.”
Chris, another young person who found his mental health worsened while attending school in Suffolk, said his anxiety first started in the final year of primary school.
“I felt scared and worried,” said Chris, whose name has also been changed. “I didn’t know why I felt like that and everyone just thought I was being naughty.
“I was embarrassed about people thinking I was weird.”
Anne Humphrys, a teacher in Suffolk whose teenage daughter suffers mental ill health, has seen both sides of the situation.
While some schools treat mental health as an important issue, she claims there are others not doing enough.
“I think there needs to be very clear criteria for all schools about what is expected in respect to mental health issues,” she added. “At the moment many schools simply turn around and say ‘we don’t know how to deal with this’.”
Graham White, secretary for the Suffolk branch of the National Union of Teachers, said the DfE should also address the pressures placed on pupils, which he claims is the cause of many mental health issues.
“We can see there’s increasing numbers of pupils who are suffering and would argue that the government has caused that through its assessment regime,” he added.
Suffolk Youth Council member Vikki Versey, 19, who has suffered mental health issues throughout much of her childhood, agreed, saying: “There’s lots of pressure and it can be really quite terrifying.”
Having raised the issue with many young people in Suffolk, she claims pupils are not always comfortable discussing mental health issues with teachers.
“They worry teachers won’t respect their confidentiality or they might get into trouble if they slate the school or a particular teacher,” she said.
Bec Jasper, who set up the Parents and Carers Together (PACT) support group with Mrs Humphrys, and has a son suffering with anxiety, wants to address this problem. She is trained as a mental health first aid instructor and is campaigning for all schools to have a dedicated staff member responsible for mental welfare.
She has already begun working with some teachers in the county.
“The training is basically a first aid course on spotting the symptoms and recognising what questions to ask students as well as appropriate ways of offering support and advice and getting students to seek the help they might need,” she said.
Samantha Hanley, student services manager at Suffolk One, who manages the college’s personal progress tutors, offering pastoral support to every student, will be meeting with Mrs Jasper to arrange training for her staff.
Many Suffolk One staff have already attended courses on bereavement, counselling and wellbeing, but Mrs Hanley hopes the mental health first aid training will provide a wider range of skills.
She said there had been a 40% increase between 2012-2014 in the number students who state in their applications for Suffolk One that they have had mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, self harm and eating disorders.
“Lots of students struggle to cope and it’s something we are seeing more and more,” she added.
“Early diagnosis means we are involved with them right from the start to give them the best support we can.”
Suffolk school leaders’ views on the problem of mental ill health
Simon Letman, headteacher at Holbrook Academy, said there had been a “definite” increase in mental health problems in the past decade.
“There is no doubt that more and more children are exhibiting signs of the more common and easily identifiable conditions these days and it would be reasonable to argue this is linked to exam pressures, bullying and the breakdown of families,” he added.
Dr Letman warned that unless government “eased some of the pressure caused by excessive testing” the rise in such problems will continue. He added, however, that teachers had become better at spotting signs and offering support.
Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI
School in Bury St Edmunds, added further concerns about the funding cuts to children’s mental health services, which meant there was less support “at times of much greater need”.
“Society has become more frenzied in its pace, more unforgiving in name-and-shame culture, and more difficult to escape to privacy because of the dominance of social media,” he added.
Mr Barton said that while King Edward gives lots of support to its students psychologically, he had “no doubt that the picture more widely is a deeply disturbing one, which reflects badly on how society values its younger generation”.
Paul Taylor, headmaster at Framlingham College, warned earlier this year that exam-based culture was “something rotten” in education that was damaging young people’s mental health.
He has highlighted the importance of a “strong pastoral culture” within school as well as educating students about the importance of mental wellbeing.
“We take a twin track approach at Framlingham College that embraces education with specialist mental health care,” he added.
Funding boost to improve joint working
The Department for Education is contributing £1.5million to improve joint working between mental health services and schools.
“Mental health is a priority for the government,” a spokesman said.
“It is unacceptable for any young person to be left to suffer in silence and denied the opportunity to fulfil their potential and it’s essential more young people are aware of their own mental wellbeing, and also have strong character and resilience.
“No-one should be stressed out by exams, which is why we have reformed the system so young people are only entered for tests when they are truly ready.
“We’ve also published guidance to schools on teaching about mental health to pupils of all ages, school counselling guidance and we have appointed Natasha Devon as our first mental health champion.”
Where to seek help
Young people in Suffolk who are troubled by anxiety, stress or depression are urged to seek free, confidential NHS support including one-on-one counselling, group sessions and self-help courses.
Contact Suffolk Wellbeing on 0300 123 1781 or visit www.readytochange.org.uk
To find more about PACT visit www.parentsandcarerstogether.uk