Teachers buckle under the strain of students’ mental health crisis to teach

Schools and teachers are “buckling under the strain” of supporting the rapidly growing number of schoolchildren suffering from mental health problems like anxiety and depression, experts say.

Although they are the people most often turned to by students in distress, teachers are hampered in their desire to help by the widespread lack of training in dealing with mental illness.

According to a group of education and health experts writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the enormous barriers many families in England face when seeking help for their son or daughter from the NHS child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services (CAMHS) get pressure on schools from .

“The growing health needs of children are currently not being met by the health sector. Schools and teachers provide vital support, but they buckle under the strain of the demands placed on them,” they say.

“The mental health of children and young people in England and the services designed to support them are in a state of disrepair,” they add. While the rate of mental illness among under-18s has increased by half in the past three years, “care is nowhere near adequate to meet needs.”

Only one in four of the 500,000 children and young people referred to CAMHS each year receive help as benefits are exhausted, and many are denied care because they are not considered ill enough.

The authors include Chloe Lowry from the UCL Institute of Education in London, Lisa-Maria Müller and Alison Peacock from the Chartered College of Teaching, and Anant Jani from the Institute of Global Health at Heidelberg University in Germany. Schools should get funding from the NHS to help them train teachers to cope with rising demand, they argue.

The precise knowledge and regular exchange between the teachers and their students make them “not just the first point of contact for issues, but for many the only point of contact”. Surveys show that children and young people seek help from them more often than from their own families. Teachers are seen as part of the first level of support in CAMHS, alongside GPs and social workers.

“It is therefore both surprising and alarming that teachers in England are not adequately trained for these roles,” the authors write. Only one teacher at one school in England receives mental health awareness training.

Despite being Level 1 CAMHS experts, only 40% of classroom teachers feel empowered to teach children in their class with mental health issues, and only 32% knew of organizations outside the school that could help students, according to a report for the government from 2016.

“While schools and colleges do what they can to help students, the lack of support and provision of mental health services for children and adolescents has been an ongoing problem for many years,” said Dr. Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of NEU, the largest teachers’ union. Covid has made the situation worse, she added.

“The workload, lack of outside support, insufficient staff numbers to work on pastoral issues and training are major barriers to students receiving the support they need and should expect.”

dr Nihara Krause, a consulting clinical psychologist, said teachers needed to have specialized mental health services to refer students to as students presented increasingly complex problems.

“Schools should provide all staff with basic mental health education, have specially trained teachers who support staff to share the challenges they may be facing in their students and themselves, [and] have clear school policies and procedures for steps to be taken with students with different mental illnesses,” added Krause.

A government spokesman said: “We are supporting teachers to help children and young people recover from the emotional impact of the pandemic, including by providing training for senior mental health leaders in all state schools and colleges by 2025.

“To support pupils with more complex needs, we have also invested a further £79m to expand child mental health services and accelerate the roll-out of mental health support teams, bringing nearly three million children in England through school or the college will have access to health professionals by April 2024.”

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