More than 420,000 children are being treated for mental health problems, according to the NHS, while one in six young people now have a probable mental health disorder – up from one in nine before the pandemic, writes Anna Smee, managing director of Thrive.
Behind those huge numbers are thousands of real lives; children and young people struggling with a ‘perfect storm’ of factors. These include an increasing emphasis on academic achievements, the fallout of the pandemic on their education and family lives, and wider concerns about the economy, climate change and instability both at home and abroad.
Life is just as tough for the teachers, teaching assistants, parents and carers trying to help these young people navigate their way through these complex challenges. We should acknowledge that the wellbeing challenges created by these pressures aren’t going to be fixed overnight. And we need to work together to offer as much support and guidance as possible, while at the same time striving to create a system that places wellbeing at its core.
The change needed is clear enough: there must be a shift towards the prevention of poor mental health, with more emphasis placed on developing the emotional resilience of young people so that our classrooms are full of happy, confident young people who are ready to learn.
Good exam grades should be just one, and not the only, indicator of lives well lived. Academic success may be an indicator of long-term earnings potential, but it is an unreliable indicator of whether a young person will be happy in life.
If young people are in a good place emotionally at 16 then they are likely to go on to do well in most aspects of life. And they are much more likely to succeed academically if they are in a happy, healthy place where they are mentally strong and resilient.
Our growing knowledge of neuroscience reinforces the case for an education system that acknowledges the role of wellbeing. Because we now know how young people’s brains work and develop over time, we can identify the key moments in their lifetime when we should be supporting them to develop the social and emotional skills they need to be mentally strong and resilient.
I think parents, carers and teachers are starting to realise that it is in the support and promotion of wellbeing where we should be investing our time and money because it will give us better outcomes for individuals and better outcomes for society.
We need government to do the same. The government’s funding of mental health leads in every school – Thrive is a quality assured provider of the training – was a positive first move but there needs to be a more fundamental recognition that it is the system as it is currently constituted that isn’t helping the wellbeing of our young people.
The NHS has shown the way here; in recent years there has been widespread recognition amongst health professionals about the importance of preventative action, community care, and trying to ensure that people don’t get to that point where they need a referral to hospital.
Bringing that rationale into education and taking a more joined up approach is crucial. Early action in school will prevent young people from being excluded and will ultimately reduce the numbers needing alternative provision, or ending up not in employment, education or training or even in prison – poor outcomes that are more likely to lead to depression and increase the likelihood of comorbidities such as diabetes.
Of course, there is still some nervousness in the education system about shifting the emphasis of our education system towards a much broader approach which prioritises wellbeing, but it makes absolute sense when you see it in action in the classroom. Good mental health is intrinsically linked to good attendance, attainment and behaviour so if we want to improve these, we need to be building on a foundation of emotional wellbeing and resilience.
We are proud to have Thrive as part of the Group. By providing specialist training and support that helps improve pupil wellbeing, they are helping thousands of young people to reach their full potential. Together | Supporting Education.
This is an edited version of a piece which originally appeared in SecEd.