Poor mental health is a growing problem among children. An estimated 20% of all young people report experiencing a mental health issue of some kind in any given year, according to research by the World Health Organisation.
And this is likely to have got worse due to the ongoing disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past six months, children across the UK have faced more uncertainty and upheaval than ever as they have dealt with school closures, getting to grips with new ways of learning and, potentially, increased pressure at home. New research from Public Health England suggests that COVID-19 has made youngsters more anxious – with a third of young people aged between eight and 24 reporting being more worried, sad and stressed than they were before lockdown.
Understandably, the new Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) guidance – which came into effect in September – contains a renewed focus on mental health. Specifically, it centres on schools’ responsibility to promote mental health, understand the contextual relevance of mental health problems and take appropriate action if this becomes a safeguarding issue.
While the worrying statistics on children’s mental health in the UK are largely a product of the uncertainty of the current climate and there’s no single, magic solution for solving them, there are steps that schools can take to support children through these difficult times.
Every child is different
According to a recent study by Oxford University, parents and carers of children aged between four and ten years old reported that, over a one-month period in lockdown, they saw an increase in their child’s emotional difficulties, such as feeling unhappy or worried, being clingy and experiencing physical symptoms associated with worry.
Clearly, many children have found lockdown very distressing – but any impact on mental health will be unique to each child. Indeed, this research also revealed differences in age groups. Overall, parents and carers of secondary school-age children, for example, reported a reduction in their child’s emotional difficulties, but an increase in restlessness and difficulty paying attention.
It’s also important to consider that, for many young people, the autumn term is stressful even in an ordinary year, but anxiety is likely to be even higher after such a long break. Meanwhile, there are children who will have had a relatively pleasant experience in lockdown: furloughed parents have been able to give their children more attention than they usually could and, in many cases, learning schedules are likely to have been more relaxed and informal than they would be in school. For these children, the return to school may be a more daunting challenge.
To provide suitable and effective support, teachers should be aware of the different ways in which children can be affected by the ongoing uncertainty, the different behaviours they might display and how to proceed appropriately if there’s cause for concern.
If teachers or other school support staff identify an issue, they should feel empowered to play a proactive role in addressing it. And, while school staff can’t act as mental health experts and shouldn’t try to diagnose conditions, they can and should be instrumental in promoting mental wellbeing, in accordance with RSHE guidance. If issues do arise, schools should work with external agencies to provide swift access or referrals to specialist support and treatment.
Robust mental health support in schools comes from ensuring clear systems and processes are in place for identifying possible mental health problems, including routes to escalate and clear referral and accountability systems. This approach makes all the difference by spotting potential mental health concerns earlier and making sure that children get the help they need and deserve.
Providing a safe and anonymous place to talk
When it comes to communicating their concerns, talking about how they are really feeling to an adult – whether a parent or a teacher – can be really hard for young people. Opening up can be easier when it’s anonymous, feels less personal and is at a time of the young person’s choosing.
Entrust’s Tootoot platform provides a safe place for children who might otherwise have suffered in silence to voice their worries. It allows them to send an anonymous message outlining how they’re feeling or what they’re experiencing, wherever they are.
Tootoot also immediately flags any issues to the relevant people in school and can be used in conjunction with monitoring and MyConcern (a safe and secure software for holistically recording and managing all safeguarding concerns) to create a wider picture of each pupil’s welfare.
A watchful eye and a friendly ear
As widespread uncertainty persists, teachers and school support staff have a critical role to play in safeguarding children’s mental health.
By implementing clear systems and procedures to identify and refer pupils’ possible mental health problems, and ensuring that pupils are connected with safe channels for voicing their concerns and accessing essential support – wherever they are, schools can protect and promote their students’ wellbeing, in even the most challenging circumstances.