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New survey points to need to build capacity of schools to cope with mental health problems in children and young people

Schools are on the front line when it comes to dealing with mental health problems and are keen to get more tools and support to effectively tackle the issue, according to a major new survey of school staff led by the Anna Freud Centre.

The research reveals that teachers and other school staff see the limited capacity of existing Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) as the greatest barrier to ensuring children and young people get the support they need.

One teacher taking part in the survey commented: “Over the years the burden on schools to deal with mental health issues has increased dramatically.  Schools are having to 'pick up the pieces' that social services, the NHS and other organisations should be dealing with and schools lack the time, money and training.”

Lack of capacity in CAMHS was seen as a bigger challenge than the stigma associated with mental health problems.

Study author Dr Helen Sharpe, Lecturer in Health and Social Science at the University of Edinburgh, said: “It is encouraging that school staff did not view attitudes toward mental health problems as being a barrier to accessing mental health support, because we know that historically this has been an important factor in why people don’t ask for help.”

The researchers carried out an online survey of 577 school staff from 341 schools in England asking about the provision of specialist mental health support in their school including what support is available, who provides it and perceived barriers to supporting the mental health of young people.

Over two thirds of schools reported having some specialist support available (e.g. mindfulness, peer support), with specialist provision more common in secondary schools.

Most schools used staff training and whole school approaches, to support children and young people with mental health issues. Educational psychologists or counsellors most often provided these services.

“Our results suggest that it is particularly important to find ways to increase the availability of provision, both in the local area and within schools themselves, to support the mental health of young people,” says co-author Tanya Lereya, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families.

The Anna Freud Centre believes a step change is needed to radically improve the state of children’s mental health care in England. It is campaigning for much greater integration of mental health support and services into our education, health and social care systems, built around the needs of children young people and their families and not around institutions, and it is calling for there to be at least one member of staff trained in mental health issues in every school in the country.

Responding to the survey findings, Jaime Smith head of school engagement at the Anna Freud Centre, said: “We need to support schools to feel confident in knowing the best ways to support children and how to work more effectively in collaboration with mental health specialists. Having at least one trained member of staff will really help in this regard”

The charity has been leading a consortium of experts to develop and deliver training to over 900 education and mental health professionals, with the aim of improving joint working between schools and CAMHS. This work has been developed since the survey and  is part of the Department for Education and NHS England’s schools mental health link pilot.

On 28th April DfE Minister Sam Gyimah announced  an extension to this work: “Over the coming months we will be working  with NHS England, the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, and our evaluators to scale up this approach in your areas. This means working with more schools, including those that are harder to reach.” 

The study has been published in the Child and adolescent mental health journal

Sharpe, H., Ford, T., Lereya, S. T., Owen, C., Viner, R.M., & Wolpert, M. (2016) Survey of schools’ work with child and adolescent mental health across England: a system in need of support. Child and adolescent mental health