Let schools use catch-up cash for mental health support, says study

High levels of psychological distress among 16 and 17-year-olds have risen by almost a quarter, a new report finds

High levels of psychological distress among 16 and 17-year-olds have risen by almost a quarter, a new report finds

23 Nov 2022, 14:06

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Mental health support should be added to catch-up activities in schools, a new study has found

Schools should be able to use their catch-up cash to provide mental health support for pupils, a new report highlighting the “shocking” scale of wellbeing issues among young people suggests.

Research conducted by UCL and the Sutton Trust shows a link between teenagers reporting the worst mental health in the aftermath of the pandemic and levels of motivation to study.

More than two in five – or 44 per cent – of 16 to 17-year-olds in England were found to have “probable” mental ill health, classed as having high levels of psychological distress.

This is nine percentage points higher than the 35 per cent reporting distress at age 17-18 in a similar 2017 study by UCL’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS).

The Covid Social Mobility & Opportunities Study (COSMO) looked at how events during the pandemic years had impacted the mental wellbeing of the 2021-22 GCSE cohort.

Long Covid and shielders worst hit

Of the children who had experienced severe long Covid, which significantly impacted their ability to carry out their usual routine, 66 per cent reported high psychological distress. This compares to 44 per cent of those who had not had long Covid.

Meanwhile nearly half, or 48 per cent of those who shielded, either because they or someone they lived with was clinically extremely vulnerable, met the threshold. Of those who did not shield, 43 per cent experienced high levels of psychological distress.

“Things were bad before, and that means there are big systemic issues that need fixing,” the report stated.

The study also looked at how Covid had impacted young peoples’ motivation to study and learn, as well as their progress in school and plans for the future.

More than half – 51 per cent – of overall respondents said they were less motivated to study and learn as a result of the pandemic.

The study suggests a link between mental health and motivation. Of those with high psychological distress, 68 per cent said they felt the pandemic’s disruption had made them less motivated to learn, compared to only 37 per cent of other respondents.

The pattern was similar for progress, with 86 per cent of those in high psychological distress saying their year 11 progress had suffered, versus 76 per cent of other respondents.

Dr Jake Anders, deputy director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy and the report’s principal investigator, said: “The level of young people whose responses suggest concern with their mental health is shocking.”

But he added it was likely the pandemic had “sped up” a trend of declining mental health among young people. “We should not lay all the blame for this picture at its door”.

‘Ring-fence cash for mental health support’

Academics say mental health and wellbeing support should be added to catch-up activities in schools, with “specific interventions for those with existing mental health issues who feel that the pandemic has affected their academic progress”.

They also say a chunk of catch-up cash should be added to school funding allocations and ringfenced for mental health support.

It offers no further details on how the scheme would work in practice, but many schools are delivering catch-up support to pupils under the National Tutoring Programme.

A total of 12,828 young people who were in year 11 in the 2021-22 academic year responded to the survey.

Psychological distress was measured by responses to a general health questionnaire, where overall scores of four or above is considered as high psychological distress.

The average score among young people in the COSMO sample was just below the clinically-defined threshold for ‘probable mental ill health’.

A government spokesperson said: “Mental health is critical which is why we have committed at least £2.3 billion a year into mental health services with the aim that an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access NHS-funded mental health support by 2024.

“Schools play an important role in supporting their pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, and all eligible state schools and colleges will have access to senior mental health lead training by 2025.”

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