School leaders call for greater mental health support for children and young people

A new report exploring the wellbeing of children and young people has revealed that anxiousness among primary and secondary-aged pupils has increased since 2020/21. 

This comes after the Department for Education (DfE) published its ‘State of the nation 2022: children and young people’s wellbeing’ report. The report, which is updated annually, is in its fourth year. 

The report uses a range of published information from government, academic, voluntary, and probate sector organisations to describe children and young people’s wellbeing in England. 

While some improvements have been shown compared to the pre-pandemic period, other areas have worsened. 

Within secondary age pupils, older pupils consistently reported poorer wellbeing than younger pupils. 

The rate of 17-19 years olds with a probable mental disorder increased from one to six to one to four in 2022. 

Rates of eating problems and self-harm were also higher in older age groups. 

The percentage of those reporting low happiness with school appears to have increased.  

Furthermore, around a quarter of primary-aged children and around a fifth of secondary-aged children reported having been bullied in the previous 12 months when responding to the DfE in June 2022.  

There was also evidence that a sizeable minority of children and young people have had negative experiences with social media. Around one in eight 11- to 16 year-olds and one in seven 17- to 24 year-olds reported they have been bullied online. 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, commenting on the report, said: “These extremely worrying findings chime with the experiences of our members, who have seen the damaging impact of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis on children exacerbate long-standing concerns around young people’s wellbeing and mental health. 

“School leaders and their staff work tirelessly to identify mental health needs and support children’s well-being, but they are not mental health specialists and they need to be able to draw on the expertise and support of specialist services. 

“It is unfair on staff and pupils for schools to be left to struggle to paper over the cracks left by an unacceptable postcode lottery in early support and mental health treatment in which many children face long waits for treatment or are told their problems are not bad enough to warrant help. 

“We welcome the introduction of mental health support teams working with schools, but the government must speed up their roll-out and go further by investing in counselling services in all schools. 

“The government must also fund easy-access mental health support services in every community offering early support to children with emerging issues, while also investing more in treatment and crisis services so all children get help when they need it.” 

The impact of the cost-of-living crisis has also had an effect on families with schoolchildren.  

Around a third of parents and carers reported they had struggled with school costs, and a quarter of secondary-aged pupils were worried about being able to afford technology for studying. 

Around one in five 7- to 16-year-olds and one in ten 17- to 22-year-olds said that their household had experienced a reduction in income in the previous 12 months.  

There were some improvements in other areas regarding children and young people’s wellbeing. 

For example, rates of participation in extracurricular and physical activity have increased since 2020/21.  

Nearly half of children and young people are physically active for at least 60 minutes a day, and 8 in 10 reported having engaged in at least one type of extracurricular activity in summer term of 2022. 

Most children and young people reported spending time outside most days the week, and 4 in 10 said they have a high connection to nature. 

Regular physical activity and regular experiences in the natural environment were associated with greater wellbeing. 

Children and young people’s happiness regarding their choices in life and their thoughts on what may happen to them later in their lives appears to have increased between 2020 and 2022, after having dipped between 2019 and 2020 during the height of the pandemic. 

Most children and young people also reported they felt safe in and liked living in their neighbourhood. 

Around 7 in 10 young people agreed or strongly agreed that adults at their school were interested in their wellbeing, and that there was at least on adult at their school who they could talk to about how they were feeling. 

A government spokesperson said: “Children’s levels of happiness and life satisfaction are recovering to where they were before the pandemic, but we understand there is more to be done. 

“We want to continue to support all children and young people to be happy, healthy and safe which is why the mandatory school curriculum has a strong focus on mental health to support children’s wellbeing and all eligible state schools and colleges will have access to senior mental health lead training by 2025. 

“We have also committed at least £2.3 billion a year into mental health services with the aim that an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access NHS-funded mental health support by 2024.” 

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