Three children in every classroom across the UK have a diagnosable mental health problem. I know exactly what it is like to be one of them. Battling a severe eating disorder throughout my GCSEs and A-Levels meant that school could be both a struggle and a safe haven. Sadly, I am far from unique in my experiences. Yet despite having 850,000 children suffering from mental health problems, Britain is still failing to educate its teachers in how to spot and respond to mental health issues in the classroom. And it looks as if the problem is only getting worse.
Results released in March of a survey of 850 school teachers conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers revealed that over half of them felt that there was a higher incidence of mental health problems in school children compared to two years ago. Their observations are not unfounded as hospital admissions for self-harm amongst young people have risen by 68% over the past 10 years and just under 80,000 children and adolescents suffer from severe depression. When it comes to determining the reasons why youth mental health problems are on the rise there is no straightforward answer. Many argue that the digital age means our young people are more connected than ever before, but there is a flipside to this as young people have their problems follow them home from school, meanwhile growing pressures to look good and look happy online mean that there is a culture of 'false happiness'. In addition, university fees are higher than ever before and youth unemployment is commonplace, so it feels as if there isn't even a great future to look forward to even if you do manage to navigate your way through the usual teenage trials of exams, relationships and alcohol.
To make things even worse, two thirds of local authorities have experienced cuts to their budget for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) since 2010. This means that children now face endless waiting lists to see a mental health professional and only the most severe mental illnesses may be treated, often at the expense of lower level early interventions. This is an alarming decision that local authorities are being forced into making, as earlier intervention is associated with swifter recovery and positive outcomes.
With these shocking figures in mind, it should come as no surprise that teachers are increasingly being left to pick up the pieces from mental health cuts and 90% of teachers feel as if they have to provide more mental health support to pupils than they did two years ago. And yet only 9% felt as if they received enough training to help them spot symptoms of mental health problems in the classroom.
I remember lying in a hospital bed whilst people discussed eating disorders, meal plans, and inpatient care around me and I felt very angry and let down that a number of adults in my life had allowed things to get this far. It felt to me that as long as the A* grades kept dropping from the sky, nobody had bothered to take a closer look to check I was ok. Ten years later and I realise that the fault does not lie with teachers but rather is part of a wider issue with the way mental health is often overlooked and not considered as important as physical health.
For example, if a child breaks their arm playing sports at school, we would expect that a First Aider would be on the scene almost instantly to assist before getting the child to a hospital and contacting their parents swiftly afterwards. But mental illness isn't always that obvious and even when the signs are unquestionable we can almost guarantee that a Mental Health First Aider won't walk onto the scene instantly when a child discloses mental distress.
And that's what Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England are trying to change. Just like a Physical First Aid course doesn't teach its participants to become doctors, the Youth MHFA course doesn't train up counsellors or psychotherapists. Instead, it educates participants about youth mental health and teaches them to 'identify, understand and help' a young person who may be experiencing mental distress and to guide them towards appropriate help and recovery resources. And it is open to anybody; for it is clear that teachers aren't the only line of defence against mental illness but also parents, youth workers, social workers, police and so on.
The full Youth MHFA course takes two days in total, but can be delivered flexibly according to need, meaning it is ideal for busy teaching schedules. So far, feedback has been positive with senior teacher Kevin Collins, from a boarding school in Berkshire reporting not only ".. benefits to the individual staff, there has also been a noticeable cultural shift in the organisation as a whole. " And it's not only the UK which is keen to equip educators with more tools to tackle mental illness - in January 2013, President Obama announced that $50million would be invested in training teaching staff up in Mental Health First Aid. What is pertinent to me is that the new course recently developed here in UK has had comprehensive input from young people like myself who know what it is like to experience mental distress at school.
I feel strongly that in the current climate of cuts to mental health budgets and a rising incidence of mental illness in our young people, that mental health education is the best defence a school has against the tidal wave of mental ill health we are currently facing. I also feel that mental health education offers a mutual benefit to teachers too, not only in terms of developing more skills and knowledge but also being confident that somebody is on hand to support a student with a mental health problem and point them towards recovery.
For more information on courses please see MHFA England: http://mhfaengland.org/
For more information on mental health in young people please visit https://www.minded.org.uk/
Any young person experiencing distress can call Childline on 0800 1111 or the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90