Mental health in schools: a developing crisis

Louise Gilmer explores mental health in schools and the proposed government measures which may help to alleviate the problem

In July 2016, the government published a report based on a survey conducted with 30,000 Year 10 pupils to identify trends in pupil health and well-being in schools across England, the findings of which were used to compare the results of the same survey carried out in 2005. 

In particular the report found that one in three female pupils are suffering psychological distress by the time they start their GCSEs. Although girls were already displaying greater levels of psychological distress than their male counterparts in 2005, this figure is now more than double at 37%, with only 15% of boys affected by feelings of worthlessness or unhappiness. The report found that these problems are attributed to: 

  • Global economic changes – how this has negatively affected pupils’ views on future career and opportunities
  • Advancements in technology – widespread access to the internet and social media through smartphones and video cameras, places additional pressures on pupils that were not prevalent in 2005
  • Socio-demographic factors – teenagers from relatively advantaged backgrounds where at least one parent has a degree-level education are more likely to suffer symptoms of psychological distress than those from less advantaged backgrounds. 

Adding to this worrying picture, the University of Sheffield has this month published a report on the negative impact of social networking on children. This found that 10–15-year-olds who spend an extra hour per day on sites such as Facebook and Snapchat are 14% less happy about their schoolwork, the school they attend, their appearance, family and life in general. 

Clear systems and processes as well as continuous professional development can also help teachers to identify emerging mental health problems in pupils

What is the government’s response?

While broad spectrum initiatives are required to tackle mental health issues in schools, the 2016 report concluded that this is a long-term problem and that low-cost and/or simple initiatives will be difficult to identify. 

In January the Prime Minister set out the government’s response to the 2016 NHS report entitled the Five Year Forward View for mental health. These plans included a £15m reallocation of government funding to provide safe spaces, crisis cafes and community clinics for young people in England. Together with its wider investment into digital mental self-help services, the government has committed to evaluating emerging models and approaches to mental health so that schools can work more closely with local NHS services for young people. 

Within schools, the government is intending to operate a pilot scheme to offer teachers mental health first-aid training through providers such as Mental Health First Aid England which is already popular amongst many employers. However, at this stage the scheme is limited to secondary schools only.

While the government proposals may go some way to help schools tackle the problem, mental health charities are critical that the reallocation of funds do not go far enough or will not make a practical difference on a local level, particularly in light of existing budgetary cuts to benefits, and local authority funding for mental health services and support for young people. 

What role do schools currently play?

Under Part 8 of the Education (Independent School Standards) Regulations 2014, proprietors must ensure that persons with leadership and management responsibilities at the school actively promote the well-being of pupils. This includes not only a pupil’s physical health but also mental health and emotional well-being. 

In addition, the DfE guidance on mental health in schools states that schools should identify and address these issues at an early stage by working closely with parents, carers and pupils when making decisions. Clear systems and processes as well as continuous professional development can also help teachers to identify emerging mental health problems in pupils, and make referrals to local GPs, support services provided by voluntary organisation or CAMHS where appropriate.

Although the government is beginning to take meaningful steps in responding to mental health issues in schools, the research clearly demonstrates that this is part of a wider ever-growing societal problem

There are no current plans to further legislate around schools’ mental health obligations, however, the research clearly demonstrates a developing crisis to which schools must respond in order to promote the mental health and emotional well-being of pupils today. In the absence of a timetable for implementation of the government’s proposals, now may be an opportunity for schools to review their current approach to pupils’ mental health. Schools may wish to consider the following from a ‘best practice’ perspective: 

  • Training – a review of the type of courses or CPD offered to all staff and those in positions of senior leadership and whether it meets the school’s current needs.  
  • Systems and processes – a review of existing policies and procedures to ascertain how staff can best monitor and record pupils’ behaviour to identify patterns. 
  • Working with parents, carers and pupils – increased involvement and input from parents and carers could help teachers better understand patterns of pupil behaviour related to psychological distress. Some schools have implemented peer mentoring facilities for pupils, introduced concern boxes or built upon existing counselling services to encourage pupils to seek self-help.
  • External agencies – better signposting for staff within policies when making referrals to external support services or CAMHS in more serious cases. 
  • Other resources – charities such as MindEd and YoungMinds have developed a range of free online tools and e-learning programmes to provide further information and guidance for staff to help identify emerging mental health problems.

Although the government is beginning to take meaningful steps in responding to mental health issues in schools, the research clearly demonstrates that this is part of a wider ever-growing societal problem. We see mental health issues arising across the spectrum of our work for independent schools: parental concerns and complaints; allegations of educational negligence; governance of safeguarding and well-being on inspection. 

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Louise Gilmer is a solicitor at leading education law firm VWV. Louise can be contacted on 0117 314 5356 or at

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