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Research group unveils plan to boost children’s mental health

Researchers are calling for an expansion of the mental health support offered through schools and educational settings and the creation of a network of ‘one stop shop’ local online NHS information hubs.

29/04/24

Research group unveils plan to boost children’s mental health

A new plan for the government to boost children’s mental health through the education system has been released.

The report describes the crucial role schools can play in supporting children’s mental health and promoting and supporting wellbeing. With children spending more time in school than in any other formal institutional structure, educational settings provide the ideal opportunity to reach large numbers of children simultaneously and can also facilitate intervention with pupils displaying early mental health or behavioural symptoms.

The evidence-based plan is set out in a report by the Child of the North research group which includes University of Leeds academics, and the Centre for Young Lives think tank. It is the third in a series of Child of the North/Centre for Young Lives reports to be published during 2024. Both groups have launched an online petition calling on politicians to prioritise children and young people in the next political cycle, and to deliver on the ambition for a ‘Children First Government’.

Child of The North report series editor Mark Mon-Williams, Professor of Psychology in Leeds’ School of Psychology, said the UK “must prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of its children and young people if it wants to enjoy long-term prosperity.”

“There is no better measure of the health of a nation than the mental wellbeing of its children and young people. The statistics on mental health in children are heartbreaking and demand immediate action.”

The report comes amid a national epidemic of children’s mental health problems. In 2022, 18% of children aged 7-to-16-years-old and 22% of young people aged 17-to-24 had a probable mental health condition. Despite some extra investment in recent years, the children’s mental health system is blighted by chronic waiting lists and a postcode lottery of provision, and thousands of children and young people continue to struggle without support. More than 32,000 children had been waiting over two years for help at the end of 2022/3. The consequences for school attendance, educational achievement, mental health problems in adulthood, as well as over-stretched public services, economic productivity, and society’s overall wellbeing are enormous.

The report calls on the Government to expand the mental health support offered through schools and educational settings from primary school onwards, without placing extra burdens on teachers.

Other recommendations include the creation of a network of ‘one stop shop’ local online NHS information hubs, based on NHS Healthier Together, to signpost children and families to appropriate local mental health support where it is available. Researchers say this would allow children, families, and schools to learn together about the mental health support offered in their locality and how it can be accessed. The information hub would allow schools to work together more effectively with parents and children to create a supportive learning environment, tailored to local services and the local community.

Researchers also suggest tackling the ‘upstream determinants’ of poor mental health, including early support for neurodivergent children. They say that evidence shows that pre-school and primary school experience can increase the risk for mental health conditions and that the Government’s strategy to improve the social and emotional wellbeing of young people should include a focus on the pre-school and primary school years.

“The rise in the number of children experiencing mental health problems is an ongoing crisis not only for those children and families experiencing it now, but for our country’s future,” Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives, said.

“I have heard so many heartbreaking stories of the lengths children and parents have gone to get support – including, sadly, suicide attempts – but we still seem a long way away from providing the prevention, early help, and treatment that every young person with mental health problems needs.

“As an anchor in children’s lives, schools have a crucial role to play in supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing. Yet half of the school age children in England – four million children – will not have access to Mental Health Support Teams under current plans. We need to rocket-boost support in schools if we hope to bring down the numbers of children who are struggling with mental health problems.

“The current school attendance crisis is likely to be driven in part by children with mental health problems who are unwilling or unable to attend school. We know already that children and young people with mental health conditions are more likely to be absent from school, and that poor mental health significantly impacts on school attendance and outcomes.

“At the next election, the parties will put forward their proposals for improving children’s mental health. Labour has already pledged to recruit more staff, introduce specialist mental health support for children in every school, and deliver an open access children and young people’s mental health hub for every community. But there should be a cross-party ambition to reduce the prevalence of children’s mental health conditions by half over the next 10 years, and all politicians should agree that the current system is failing too many children and needs urgent attention.”

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