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Mental health support in schools: is it enough?

ByAlexandra Thompson

Feb 25, 2020

We are used to reading headlines warning us that the mental health of children and young people is ‘at crisis point’. Rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm are soaring, leaving vulnerable young people on waiting lists unable to access support. A recent poll by the National Association of Head Teachers reveals that in 2019, 66% of schools in England bought in professional mental health support for pupils; however, schools cannot tackle this problem alone.

The number of school leaders commissioning professionals, such as counsellors, has risen from 36% in 2016. This is due to the difficulty in accessing NHS services faced by those children most in need. The survey suggests that schools’ recognition and understanding of children’s mental health needs is improving, though demand for specialist services among the severely unwell still heavily outweighs available resources.

This timely school-based support appears to be a silver lining in our national mental health emergency. Nevertheless, of the school leaders surveyed, only 4% agreed that child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) respond promptly to requests for help and support. Just 5% felt children referred to CAMHS “get help when they need it”.

What does this mean for students? According to the Mental Health Foundation, three-quarters of adults with a mental illness first experience symptoms by the age of 25. Are universities currently responding to an increasing need in specialist services by commissioning their own early intervention? The Foundation adds that 94% of higher education institutions report an increase in demand for their counselling services over the last decade.

The student counselling service here at the University of Edinburgh aims to offer an assessment appointment to any student who self-refers within two weeks. While one first year student stated they were seen for assessment just four days after self-referring, another fourth year student recalls waiting six months after assessment for further support to commence. There appears to be too much variation in the extent to which universities are equipped to meet the challenge of increased rates of mental distress among students.

This surge in help-seeking behaviour could be partly due to the discussion around mental health hitting the mainstream. With more of us opening up about our own mental health face-to-face and on social media, the mental health lexicon has changed.

Progress has been made in reducing judgemental tone and using more inclusive language. Those affected by suicide often use “died by suicide”, rather than “committed suicide”. The latter risks inferring suicide is a crime, which can be upsetting for those who have been affected by it. Recently, some mental health advocates have voiced their concerns over referring to people as “suffering with mental illness”. They believe that imposing the notion of ‘suffering’ on others implies it is impossible to successfully live with mental illness. Conversely, it could be argued that illness, by definition, is a cause of suffering.

Even the term “mental illness” has been criticised, with some believing the phrase “brain disorder” is less stigmatising. Does the restriction of language lessen the impact of discussing mental illness? This political correctness can exclude individuals who feel they cannot genuinely express themselves in a compelling way due to the risk of offending others. The positive intentions behind the move towards sensitive language can seem oppressive, impinging on free speech.

In 2016, a Twitter user started the hashtag “#IGetDepressedWhen”. Initially most people joked about trivial inconveniences in an attempt to be funny. Then others started to criticise the thread. As someone who spent a year in a psychiatric hospital being treated for severe depression, it is disheartening when a serious mental illness is trivialised. The criticism was met with arguments over those offended being too sensitive.

Education on the impact of diction is important. Whatever your opinion on the appropriateness of these linguistic transformations, everyone can benefit from increasing their tolerance and empathy. After all, every one of us has to deal with  mental health.

Image: Iconathon via Wikipedia