Schools 'picking up pieces' of failing mental health support, study claims

Schools are being forced to “pick up the pieces” of a crumbling mental health support system where over a quarter of referred children are being refused help, a new study claims.

The Education Policy Institute today released a damning report on access to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) in 2019.

Based on freedom of information figures, the study claimed 26 per cent of children – 133,000 – referred to specialist mental health services in England last year were rejected.

The most common rejections were the child’s conditions being unsuitable for treatment or not meeting eligibility criteria. Referrals included youngsters who had self-harmed, been abused or had eating disorders, the study said.

Even for those granted access the average waiting time was two months, and in some instances as long as six months.

NHS England has branded the study a “flawed analysis” in which the authors failed to check “basic facts and policy commitments”.

But Whitney Crenna-Jennings, senior researcher at the EPI and author of the report, said the problems are likely causing major repercussions for schools “by hindering academic performance” as mental ill-health represents a “key barrier to social mobility”.

The report states long-term mental health problems can lead to poor performance in school, as well as future substance abuse and criminal activity.

Crenna-Jennings also explained the extended waiting for those who qualify places a burden on schools as “even the children most in need are not getting treatment immediately and schools often have to pick up the pieces”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added mental health services are an “an appalling postcode lottery which leaves schools struggling to secure the specialist help needed by young people suffering from serious mental health illnesses”.

The NHS disputes 26 per cent of children were rejected and said the report’s focus on ‘rejected referrals’ assumes the children are left to fend for themselves as well as failing to acknowledge the rising number of children being treated.

Instead they may be seeking support from through other public services or have themselves chosen not to enter treatment.

Furthermore the NHS said the researchers did not approach publicly-funded voluntary sector providers which provide “significant” support – providing an incomplete picture of help available.

The NHS spokesperson said they are “actually ahead of its target on ensuring as many children as possible receive mental health care – seeing an extra 53,000 children, teenagers and young adults last year, a 14 per cent increase on the year before and 22 per cent more staff in services than five years ago”.

In December 2017, the government published a green paper on children and young people’s mental health services (CYPMHS) – allocating £300 million for mental health staff to work in and with schools.

This included £95 million for schools to appoint and trained designated senior leads for mental health and more than £200 million was promised for new mental health support teams to work with the NHS to offer support and treatments in schools.

However, the parliamentary education and health committees previously criticised the plans as they “lack any ambition” and put additional pressure on teachers without providing extra resources.

While the mental health teams which are scheduled to be rolled out nationally by 2022-23 are seen as a “positive step” – it could take up to 10 years to fully roll out the service.

EPI concludes by calling for a “more ambitious programme to reduce the burden of mental illness”.

The report also highlights the prevalence of conduct disorder (CD) – a childhood and adolescent condition characterised by persistent patterns of disruptive and aggressive behaviour – which “remains one of the least widely recognised or studied mental health disorders”.

It states as these children with complex and less understood difficulties do not fit clearly into diagnostic boxes, they are at risk of not being able to access CAMHS.

Crenna-Jennings claimed schools’ methods of dealing with such disruptive children, such as segregation and expulsion, and the rejection implicit in such methods could also be “particularly impactful”.