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Children and young people’s mental health: The role of schools

Jonathan Glazzard, Professor of Inclusive Education, Leeds Beckett University Samuel Stones, Leeds Beckett University

The World Health Organisation (2014) defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual is able to achieve their own potential and participate in daily life. One in 10 children and young people has a diagnosis of mental ill-health (DHSC & DfE, 2017). Many mental health problems start before the age of 14 and, if left untreated, can continue into adult life (DHSC & DfE, 2017). Furthermore, we are concerned about the mental ill-health of students in higher education (Stones & Glazzard, 2019). Educational institutions play a critical role in identifying mental health needs and providing tailored interventions, but financial constraints have resulted in student wellbeing services and external health services being drastically reduced (DHSC & DfE, 2017) and unable to meet demand.

We adopt the perspective that mental health lies on a continuum, and is influenced by personal, social, cultural, political and environmental factors. In recent years progress has been made in de-stigmatising mental health through enhanced media coverage and support from high-profile individuals and organisations. However, attitudes towards mental health still vary between individuals and across groups of people and societies. For example, stigma still exists in some Asian and African countries, and within cultural groups in the UK.

Although schools play a crucial role in identifying mental ill-health and providing targeted interventions, prevention is always more effective than cure. Developing a positive school culture enables young people to experience a sense of belonging, builds their confidence and enables them to thrive. Research suggests that positive relationships between staff and students and between students play a critical role in promoting wellbeing (Calear, 2010). Furthermore, universal approaches to the identification of mental ill-health, including the use of student self-assessment tools, enable school leaders to identify all those who need support, regardless of whether a need is visible.

‘Providing students with a mental health curriculum improves mental health literacy and help-seeking behaviours – yet in the absence of national guidance, schools are left to either develop their own programmes or purchase commercial packages which may be quality assured.’

Research has demonstrated the importance of providing children and young people with a curriculum programme which addresses mental health (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2014; Goodman, Joshi, Nasim, & Tyler, 2015). This is particularly important given that research suggests it is easier to change attitudes among children in relation to mental health than it is to change those among adults (Corrigan & Watson, 2007). In addition, recent research demonstrates that providing students with a mental health curriculum improves mental health literacy and help-seeking behaviours (Glazzard & Szreter, 2018). Evidence suggests that programmes that develop social and emotional regulation skills are particularly effective (EPI, 2018). However, in the absence of national guidance, schools are left either to develop curricula programmes that address mental health, or to purchase commercial packages which may not have been quality assured.

Although whole-school responses are laudable and are common in countries such as Australia and England, they only provide a sticking plaster which masks the deep-rooted causes of mental ill-health. Mental health requires a systemic response rather than simply targeting interventions at the level of individuals. Consequently, governments across the world must urgently identify the significant factors that result in mental ill-health.

Socioeconomic disadvantage acts as a psychosocial stressor, which has a detrimental impact on young people’s mental health (EPI, 2018). It is therefore critical that nations take actions to address poverty and the effects of adverse childhood experiences which are exacerbated by social deprivation. Addressing social deprivation will address one of the root causes of mental ill-health, rather than placing the onus on schools to merely address the symptoms.


References

Calear, A, L. & Christensen, H. (2010). Systematic Review of School- based Prevention and Early Intervention Programs for Depression. Journal of Adolescence, 33(3), 429–438.

Corrigan, P. & Watson, A. (2007). How children stigmatize people with mental illness. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 53(6), 526–546.

Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) & Department for Education (DfE) (2017), Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: A Green Paper. London.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R., Dymnicki, A., Taylor, R., & Schellinger, K.. (2014). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta- analysis of School-based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1): 405–432.

Education Policy Institute [EPI] (2018). Written evidence from the Education Policy Institute (SGP0007). Retrieved from Health and Social Care Committee, UK Parliament website: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/health-and-social-care-committee/transforming-children-and-young-peoples-mental-health-provision/written/76777.pdf

Glazzard, J., & Szreter, B. (2018). Mind Your Head – Programme Evaluation. Cambridge & Leeds: Cambridge United Community Trust & Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University. Retrieved from https://leedsbeckett.ac.uk/-/media/files/School-of-Education/mind_your_head_evaluation_report.pdf

Goodman, A., Joshi, H., Nasim, B. & Tyler, C. (2015). Social and Emotional Skills in Childhood and Their Long-term Effects on Adult Life. London: UCL Institute of Education.

Stones, S. & Glazzard, J. (2019). Supporting Student Mental Health in Higher Education. St Albans: Critical Publishing.

World Health Organisation [WHO]. (2014). Mental Health: a state of well-being. Webpage. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/