Tackling the biggest threat to our children

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

As we begin 2016, mental health must be recognised as the biggest danger to our young people’s wellbeing and a priority for us all, says Pete Henshaw

Make no mistake, the mental health of our young people is an issue that has become just as important as their numeracy or literacy skills, their examination results and their preparedness for the working world.

As Professor Tanya Byron told the SSAT national conference last month, one in 10 young people aged five to 16 has a diagnosable mental health disorder and 50 per cent of adult mental health problems present by the age of 14.

Furthermore, the latest ChildLine figures show that four of the top 10 issues about which teenagers contacted the charity were linked to mental health – low self-esteem/unhappiness, self-harm, suicidal feelings, and mental health/depressive disorders. The rise in incidence of self-harm has been well-documented during the past year and the above issues accounted for one-third of all contacts to ChildLine in 2014/15.

For Headteacher Update, mental health is the biggest threat to young people’s wellbeing that we have seen for generations.

Whether the increase in problems is because we have become much more adept at recognising and diagnosing these kind of issues, or whether it is the nature of today’s world that is resulting in increased problems, is a key question that is still open to debate.

I suspect the actual situation is a mix of the two. I do believe, however, that life for young people today is much more stressful than, say, 20 years ago.

For example, much of life in 2016 is lived online, where the impact of bullying, prejudice, hatred and social exclusion is seemingly much more severe. Perhaps it is that the perpetrators feel they can be more vicious and go further because they are online, anonymous and removed from the impact their acts have.

What’s more, there is no escape for the young victim. Where once their family home or bedroom provided private refuge, it no longer can, as social media and mobile devices make bullying a 24/7 issue.

The culture of exams and testing that now exists is also, to my mind, to blame. SecEd works closely with a range of professionals, including educational psychologists and counsellors, and it is clear from what we hear that low-level anxiety and stress are common consequences of the pressure being placed on exam outcomes at all ages and stages.

Furthermore, there seem to be many more issues about which young people can become anxious in today’s world. Sexual pressures are more heightened due to our very sexualised society; pornography is a huge problem. Linked to this is body image, which itself leads to pressures and can also be a source of bullying.

YoungMinds has labelled this phenomenon an “unprecedented toxic climate” of stress, pressure and fear of failure. The results are clear: anxiety, depression, self-harm are on the rise. Disturbingly, one in 12 young adults now self-harm.

The government’s £1.25 billion funding boost last year (to support the NHS to help young people in particular) is welcome. However, the government should not escape criticism for the state of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, which are stretched to breaking point, meaning only the worst cases are seen. This is because of cuts to local authority budgets over the past five years. It means many children’s mental health needs not being met – and are often being left to get worse.

It should not be the role of schools alone to tackle these issues, but at the same time headteachers know that these are some of the biggest barriers to learning and feel they have little choice but to spend their own budgets to support children and their families.

While the mental health of our young people is under such sustained attack, schools will continue to do what they must. Meanwhile, Headteacher Update will continue to lobby ministers for more funding and better services to ease the pressure. We shall also continue our campaign to find and spread best practice – both in promoting good mental health and in spotting the warning signs of problems and knowing how to react.

  • Pete Henshaw is the editor of Headteacher Update and has been writing about education for more than 10 years. Follow @pwhenshaw


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