Children's Mental Health Week: The 'Heartbreaking' Reality For 3m Primary Pupils

Most primary pupils are unable to get help from counsellors at school, a study casting further doubt over the state of mental health services for children in Britain has revealed.

Just a third of primary schools have an on-site counsellor, despite one in five children experiencing mental health problems before they reach 11. And, in most cases, the mental health professionals are on site for just one day or less a week.

The figures, based on a survey of almost 1,500 primary headteachers, were released last week by children's charity Place2Be and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).

The research coincides with Place2Be's second Children's Mental Health Week, which was launched by the Duchess of Cambridge with a special video message.

As Place2Be's Royal Patron, the Duchess said that both she and The Duke of Cambridge feel that "every child deserves to be supported through difficult times in their lives."

The four children featured in the video with Duchess have all taken part in Place2Be's 'whole school' approach to good mental health. The break-time service is available to children who want to talk through and help understand issues that might be troubling them.

There are around 4.5 million primary state school pupils in the UK, meaning there are as many as 3 million pupils who are not getting access to adequate support.

Jamie Maloy, headteacher at Viking Primary School in Northolt, said the number of children experiencing mental health difficulties increase in more deprived areas.

"Common sense tells us that children cannot learn if they are not happy, safe and secure. Children need the resilience to deal with family break ups, bereavement, domestic violence and a whole host of current safeguarding and neglect issues," he told The Huffington Post UK.

"Increasingly, this is having to be provided by schools. With the competing pressures of tightening budgets, new assessment and curriculum demands, as well as recruitment shortages, this is no easy task," Maloy said.

According to the research, nearly four in five schools (78%) cite financial constraints as a barrier to providing their pupils with adequate mental health services.

More than half (53%) blame a shortage of services or qualified professionals.

One headteacher, who did not wish to be named, said: "If we could access specialist support early for our children I think some of the issues seen later in their education could be avoided."

An image taken from a video recorded by The Duchess Of Cambridge, with children from Salusbury Primary School in London, to launch Children's Mental Health Week

Dr Pooky Knightsmith, an emotional health adviser and director of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity educating young people on how to stay mentally well, says an increasing number of primary schools are asking for help.

"Sadly we are getting more requests about how to support anxiety, self-harm, depression and eating disorders in upper primary," she told The Huffington Post UK.

"We are increasingly keen to do more preventative work in primary settings - this is where really positive ground work can be laid. About a third of the requests I field come from primary schools, whereas three years ago they used to be the rare exception.

"We are, without doubt, seeing an increase in children who are really struggling at younger and younger ages.

"It's heartbreaking."

Three in five primary schools do not have a member of staff who is trained in dealing with mental health issues. Despite this, Anna-Marie Shanley, headteacher at Holy Catholic Primary School, Salford, said mental health services are becoming an "increasingly essential" part of schools’ provision.

"Local mental health provision hardly touches the surface of need in our area," Shanley said. "So we took the decision to buy a service to meet that need quickly and in a way that supports the ethos of our school’s care and support for the children and their family."

"We help them make sense of what is going on around them and help build their emotional resilience," she continues. "If we don’t address their emotional health and well-being then we’re doing these children a disservice.

Catherine Roche, CEO of Place2Be said primary school leaders are well aware of the challenges their pupils faced, "whether it's coping with parental separation, the illness or death of a loved one, or even witnessing domestic violence or substance misuse at home.

"The vast majority are already working hard to support them so that they're ready to learn and can get the most out of their education," she said.

"But teachers are not counsellors and sometimes schools need professional support to make sure that problems in childhood don't spiral into bigger mental health issues later in life."

Roche added that Children's Mental Health Week this year "focuses on the benefits of building children's resilience as a key life skill to help cope with life's difficult situations, both in childhood and into adult years.

"Place2Be's work in over 250 schools and our training for school staff focus on understanding a child's behaviour and helping them to manage their emotions in a positive way.

"We are hugely grateful to The Duchess for helping to remove the stigma around children's mental health and for shining a spotlight on the value of supporting children in school from an early age," she said.

Children’s Mental Health Week this year focuses on the importance of building children’s resilience and their ability to cope with stressful situations

In March 2015, the Department for Education published guidance to help school leaders set up and improve counselling services in schools.

Up to 85% of secondary schools in the UK provide pupils with access to a counsellor but data on the number of primaries doing so has not previously been available.

In its report, the DfE wrote: "There is robust evidence that a play-based counselling model [in primary schools] is associated with a significant reductions in psychological distress in primary school children."

Those schools with a large number of pupils eligible for free school meals were more likely to have invested in a school-based counsellor, with more than eight in ten of the schools with counsellors fully or partially funding them through pupil premium cash.

Children from poorer families are four times more likely to have serious mental health problems than those from the wealthiest.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT said the findings should remind the government the services schools, families and children rely on were under "great pressure".

"Rising demand, growing complexity and tight budgets may be getting in the way of helping the children who need it most,” he said.

"[Our members'] work demonstrates the crucial role that schools can play in supporting children's mental health and building their resilience."

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Useful websites and helplines:

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