As many as three pupils in each class may be struggling with mental health problems, but many of their teachers say they feel ill-equipped to respond. Cuts are decimating statutory services, Ellie Mulcahy says, moving the onus on to school leaders to put improved support in place

Teachers and schools need the skills to spot the warning signs and respond to mental health needs. One in ten young people suffers with a mental health disorder, according to a recent Centre Forum report, and GPs warn that the prevalence is rising. This means that, on average, three pupils in each class will be struggling with mental health problems. As cuts continue to decimate statutory services, school leaders increasingly need to call on third-sector expert organisations to fill the gap and help to support their pupils.

Mental health problems often worsen when treatment is delayed. Yet stigma remains a significant barrier to early intervention: one in three fathers reports he would try to stop his child receiving counselling, according to the charity Place2Be. While teachers cannot be expected to provide mental health support in isolation, they do need to identify warning signs early and refer pupils to appropriate services quickly. However, a report by the NfER found that fewer than two-thirds of teachers felt able to identify mental health needs and only a third felt their training on mental health was adequate.

Multiple government reports and reviews have acknowledged the problem and called for improvements. The Department of Health report Future in Mind highlighted the need to “promote resilience, prevention and early intervention” through a focus on resilience-building in the early years and a whole-school approach to positive mental health. Meanwhile, the Carter review of initial teacher training (ITT) argued that trainees need to understand typical child and adolescent development to address mental health needs.

Stigma remains a significant barrier to early intervention

Worryingly, training on child and adolescent development was found to be particularly lacking in secondary ITT courses. The report recommended that child and adolescent development should form core content of all ITT courses to underpin an understanding of mental health. However, it lacked specificity on how the former would actually aid the latter. School leaders therefore need to put improved support into place, something that should involve both building teachers’ expertise and making arrangements to provide more intensive, specialist support for pupils where necessary.

First, schools should assess current and incoming staff members’ confidence and expertise and arrange suitable training. Programmes such as In Our Hands show teachers how to develop a preventive approach that promotes positive mental health and develops resilience, while organisations such as Mental Health First Aid provide detailed guidance on spotting early symptoms of mental health disorders. This training is particularly useful because it focuses on practical responses to mental health distress, ­ for example, how to reduce the stigma surrounding the discussion of suicide risk.

Second, many schools recognise that while they cannot do everything, neither can they count on threadbare statutory services to step in where necessary. They have therefore established links with organisations such as Place2Be and Family Links, who provide ongoing mental health support in a more intensive and regular form. A strength of these organisations is that as well as providing intensive support and counselling for pupils, they work with staff and parents to create an environment that promotes positive mental health at a whole-school level.

Unfortunately, some teachers work in schools that do not prioritise mental health as much as they should. These teachers may have to go it alone to seek information, support and guidance. Online tools such as MindEd can help by giving teachers a basic understanding of the most prevalent mental health problems in each age group, the factors that make children vulnerable, the signs that should cause concern and how they can help by working in partnership with professional services.

Nearly 50 per cent of teachers do not believe they know how to support pupils with mental health needs, yet heightened prevalence and shrinking public services mean they will increasingly need to do so. School leaders need to draw on the expertise of specialist organisations to ensure early identification and the right support is put in place. Only then can action be taken before issues escalate.