Designated mental health leads: Funding finally emerges

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With fears over the growing impact of the pandemic on mental health, the government has finally announced the first tranche of funding for new designated mental health leads (DMHLs) in schools.

The Department for Education (DfE) and Department of Health and Social Care wants every school to have a DMHL by 2025 and pledged in the 2017 mental health Green Paper and their subsequent consultation response (2018) to fund the training required to achieve this.

The announcement this week – which was timed to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week – amounted to £9.5m to support the training of some DMHLs next academic year (DfE, 2021).

Officials say that the funding will be enough to reach “up to 7,800 schools and colleges in England”. There is no indication of when further funding will be available.

The DfE has also unveiled plans for a £7m Wellbeing for Education Recovery Programme, which will build on its popular £8m Wellbeing for Education Return initiative last year which was accessed by 90 per cent of local authorities.

The DfE says the new programme will offer “free expert training, support and resources for staff dealing with children and young people experiencing additional pressures from the last year – including trauma, anxiety, or grief”. Further details are yet to be unveiled.

There is also a focus on school staff, with the DfE and Ofsted backing a new Education Staff Wellbeing Charter (for more, see our report here).

The latest announcements come after £79m was committed in November’s Spending Review to expand the roll-out of Mental Health Support Teams – another Green Paper pledge.

Pilots began work in December 2018 with 59 teams having been set up by March last year. The new plan in light of the pandemic is to have around 400 teams in place by April 2023.

The support teams work to ensure early intervention, such as enabling children to text a health professional and providing families with tips on how to spot mental health problems. Existing support teams have worked during the pandemic to help families, offering services such as telephone counselling.

However, there is a feeling of too little, too late about the government’s mental health support in schools, with the full DMHL funding to be delivered by 2025 and the Mental Health Support Team expansion only reaching a third of the school and college-age population by 2023.

The next meeting of the government’s minister-led Mental Health in Education Action Group is to take place on May 24. The DfE has also said it will be adapting the Link programme, designed to improve partnerships between health and education leaders in local areas, to raise awareness of mental health concerns and improve referrals to specialist help.

It comes as yet more research emerges about the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health.

Already, we know from NHS data that the prevalence of mental health conditions in young people is on the rise, with one in six children aged five to 16 now having a probable mental health disorder. This includes 14.4 per cent of primary-age children and 17.6 per cent of secondary age children (NHS, 2020).

According to a survey by YoungMinds in January 2021, 67 per cent of young people with mental health problems believe that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.

And research involving 700 parents has found that 45 per cent say that at least one of their children is experiencing probably mental health issues – up from 32 per cent at the beginning of the pandemic.

The research – published by stem4, which offers NHS-approved mental health apps – says that specific conditions reported by the parents include depression, anxiety, conduct and eating disorders.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “I know how difficult the pandemic has been for many children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, and the next few months will be crucial in supporting their recovery. Getting back into the classroom was a vital step in this process but success in school and college goes beyond an excellent education – as parents we want our children to feel settled, calm and happy while they learn.

“That’s why we’re providing new funding to make experts available for support, advice and early intervention or specialist help, so every young person knows who and where to turn to as we build back better after the pandemic.”

Schools leaders have welcomed any additional funding, but are clear that mental health services and support remain underfunded after years of austerity.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Children are returning to school needing not just academic help, but a wide range of pastoral, mental health and wellbeing support too, all of which requires additional resources.

“But schools cannot be the only place children or their families are able to turn for help with mental health. The support of well-integrated and well-funded social and health services is equally vital. Sadly, these services have been seriously damaged by a decade of austerity.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “We have to say that this (funding) comes after years of government underfunding of schools and colleges which has taken its toll on their capacity to provide pastoral support, and very severe difficulties in accessing NHS children’s mental health services for young people with complex problems. However, the initiatives now being implemented are a step in the right direction, and we look forward to seeing further detail.

“We do feel, however, that there needs to be a greater focus on the factors which cause poor mental health. We are particularly concerned about the impact of child poverty on the wellbeing of pupils and their ability to learn.”

Mental Health Awareness Week is run by the Mental Health Foundation. This year, it focuses on the theme of nature and how connecting with nature can help improve mental health. The charity has a range of resources, including specific support and advice relating to the coronavirus pandemic.

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