Child mental health crisis: Personal reflections on the increase in mental health referrals

Child mental health crisis in England
By Adam Gillett*

On the 5th February 2022 the BBC ran a significant news story entitled ‘Children’s mental health: Huge rise in severe cases, BBC analysis reveals’. The report highlighted the staggering statistic that there had been a 77% rise in the number of students needing specialist treatment for severe mental health issues. The article noted that 409,347 young people (under 18) had been referred to the NHS in England for specialist care due to suicidal ideation or self-harm. 

No-one working in schools will be surprised by this piece of analysis. 

Children's mental health referrals and the lack of qualified mental health support in schools

The number of students needing specialist support has been rising since 2010, when government choices meant significant cuts in proactive preventative measures around mental health and wellbeing services, such as Sure Start Centres. The COVID-19 pandemic has exasperated this further, with the Good Childhood Report (2021) reporting that roughly 250,000 students did not cope with the pandemic and it impacted significantly on their mental wellbeing (Children’ Society, 2021). 


England referrals mental health crisis 2021

The above graph perhaps suggests a problem in itself. The dips coincide with school holidays, and question marks have to be asked about how the current curriculum is set up. The curriculum, amended under Michael Gove in his ill-fated time as Education Secretary, is intentionally knowledge heavy, forcing schools to push students through content, with little time to reflect and consolidate. Built into the equation OFSTED expectations around curriculum breadth and schools have little time to reflect and consider how they can put in proactive measures, let alone meet the expectations around ‘Personal Development’.

Mental health crisis and pressure on schools

All of the above is stark enough, but it could be asserted that schools are masking many more issues. Schools are being increasingly asked to intervene with students who are in crisis due to significant CAMHS waiting times. Pastoral teams are straining under this burden, with staff citing they are under resourced and under prepared. 

The 2017 white paper, which introduced Mental Health Support Teams and Designated Mental Health Leads to schools, has not been adjusted for a post-pandemic world. The Mental Health Support Teams are not yet onboard across the country, leading to a postcode lottery for mental health support. Equally, whilst the first wave of training is in place for Designated Mental Health Leads, they need funding putting in place to support in school interventions. An Institute of Fiscal Studies report showed how there has been a 9% real-terms fall in school spending per pupil over the last decade. As part of Gove’s new remit to ‘level up’ areas within the UK, school spending has to be reassessed, with ring fenced spending for mental health support.  

All of the above could paint quite a bleak picture. However, the training for School Mental Health Leads is and will make a difference, and there are positive reports coming back from areas which have Mental Health Support Teams online already. The tide can be turned but it will take time, money and action from this government to support it.

*Disclaimer: Adam Gillett contributed to this blog post in his personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the view or position of Minds Ahead.

Picture of Author: Adam Gillett
Author: Adam Gillett

Assistant Principal - Student Ethos and Safeguarding
Penistone Grammar School
Learning and Development Specialist at Minds Ahead

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