Mental health in schools

Catherine Roche


Catherine Roche is Chief Executive of Place2Be, the UK's leading children's mental health charity providing in-school support and expert training to improve the emotional wellbeing of pupils, families, teachers and school staff. Disclaimer: This is an independent blog and ACAMH may not necessarily hold the same views.

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“Sometimes you feel like a volcano erupting,” one eight-year-old boy told us, “but if you come to Place2Be, you can cool down.” Learning how to ‘cool down’ when things become stressful or overwhelming is a skill that we all need at some point in our lives. But when problems become too big for children to cope with on their own, it is vital they know who to turn to for support – whether that is a friend or family member, a teacher, or a mental health professional.

The role of schools

A joint report from the Health and Education Committees published in April recognised that schools have a crucial role to play in supporting children and young people with their mental health early in their lives. Similarly, in January the Prime Minister spoke of plans to “transform the way we deal with mental illness in this country at every stage of a person’s life: not in our hospitals, but in our classrooms, at work and in our communities.”

It’s not difficult to see the appeal of placing professional mental health support in the school environment. Not only does working in the school setting enable us to reach children and families without stigma, but also by working in close partnership with teachers and school staff we can intervene earlier before issues develop to the point of needing support from specialist services. Through a ‘whole school approach’, we can promote positive mental health and self-care to help children and young people develop the resilience and coping strategies they need to face life’s challenges.

For example, we provide pupils with the opportunity to book their own appointments with a counsellor during a lunch or break time. This popular service – used by more than 35,000 pupils in the last school year – not only helps to destigmatise counselling for children and young people with more acute needs, but can also be an important means to identify possible safeguarding concerns and a referral route for further support – trained counsellors can spot potential concerns before teachers or other adults might become aware of them.

However the school environment also poses its own challenges. Place2Be, in partnership with the National Association for Head Teachers (NAHT), conducted research into the support available for pupils’ mental health in primary schools in England and found that just over half had access to a school-based counsellor or peripatetic counsellor. Over three quarters (78%) reported that financial constraints are a barrier to putting in place mental health services for pupils and similarly 61% cited a lack of local qualified professionals as a barrier. Similarly, these findings were echoed in the Department for Education’s Survey of Mental Health Provision in Schools and Colleges (August 2017).

Integrating health and education

As well as providing an early-intervention service, school-based mental health professionals can also help schools to build close ties with local CAMHS in order to make sure that any referrals are well-managed for the children and young people involved and that the end-to-end system is integrated.

For instance, working closely with CAMHS in a number of local areas, we have developed a ‘Step Up, Step Down’ model to ensure child mental health referrals are timely and successful. This collaborative approach involving shared referral criteria and tools can assist in ensuring that children and young people get the mental health support they need, at the right time. By developing strong relationships between a CAMHS ‘link person’ and senior clinician, we can provide high-quality information to enhance the referral and ensure its appropriateness (Step Up), and when a child no longer needs specialist help they can be referred back to school-based support (Step Down) to ensure a smooth transition and to avoid the “cliff edge” of lost support.

A skilled workforce

Bridging this gap between schools and CAMHS, and ensuring everyone speaks a common language and is linked up, can make all the difference when it comes to getting children and young people the support they need when they need it, and making best possible use of what we all know are scarce resources.

One School Leader noted: “As a direct result of the training from Place2Be I was able to have a conversation with CAMHS using the language which enabled me to be listened to… It was probably the most constructive conversation I have had with health professionals where I felt confident to speak with authority and experience to access the help I needed for my student.”

It is crucial that schools and specialist mental health services are linked up, as part of a whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing. Place2Be’s Mental Health Champions programme addresses this, by helping School Leaders to think about the whole spectrum of support required – from prevention and early intervention, to specialist support for more acute needs. It also takes into account the wellbeing of families and school staff, for a truly holistic approach.

The landscape has changed considerably since Place2Be first began working with schools 23 years ago, and it is heartening that today there is much more national recognition both politically and publicly of the importance of children’s mental health and the value of early intervention. However, only when we bridge the gap between education and health and with the necessary investment can we truly begin to see the transformation in services that children and young people deserve.

Find out more about Place2Be’s work in schools here

Read Place2Be’s report Children’s Mental Health Matters (2016) in partnership with NAHT here

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[…] Catherine Roche is Chief Executive of Place2Be, a leading children’s mental health charity providing in-school support and expert training to improve the emotional wellbeing of pupils, families, teachers and school staff. Read the original blog here. […]

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