THE TIMES – EDUCATION
School therapy teams will help anxious children back to the classroom
NHS wants network of mental health experts for England within five years
Cleopatra Fraser, an NHS education mental health practitioner, and Louise Willard, the head of Elm Grove, said anxiety among children has increased since the pandemic
PETER TARRY FOR THE TIMES
Eleanor Hayward, Health Correspondent
Friday October 13 2023, 3.30pm, The Times
NHS therapy will be offered in every school under plans to tackle a surge in mental health problems that has left thousands of children too anxious to attend lessons.
New mental health support teams of specially trained NHS staff have been assigned to one in three schools to offer in-school treatment for young people with anxiety and depression.
NHS chiefs hope to expand the service to every primary and secondary school in England within five years. They said improving children’s mental health is essential to securing the “future economic health of the country” amid fears that a generation of “ghost children” scarred by lockdown will struggle to enter the workplace.
Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s national mental health director, told The Times: “We’re hoping that we could be the first country in the world where all of our children will have access to evidence-based mental health support in all of our schools.
“This approach is innovative — we’re being contacted by other countries who are intrigued by what we’re doing and want us to share evidence, evaluation and outcome.”
The specialist support is seen as crucial to reversing an alarming drop in school attendance rates, which is being fuelled by mental health problems. The latest figures show 125,222 children in England miss at least half of school, twice the level recorded before the pandemic.
Murdoch said: “We know Covid has spiked anxiety, depression and other common mental health problems amongst children and young people.
“Every expert, whether in education, or mental health, would all say that school attendance is very important. Particularly as children get older, there is a direct link between school attendance and then being able to have a job and enter into the workplace. It makes sense when you think about the habits and resilience you learn at school, around getting up and going out every day, gaining confidence and navigating problems.
“The habits and routines of school are similar to the habits and routines we all need at work. Our young are the economic health of this country in the future.”
So far there are 398 school mental health teams in England. This is expected to expand to 600 by spring 2025 to cover 54 per cent of all pupils.
Each team works across ten to 20 local schools, and the staff are trained at a series of new 12-month government-funded courses, offered by universities including King’s College London.
They are trained in interventions including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and how to identify and “fast track” children for more specialist help.
The teams also lead a “whole school” approach to mental health, training teachers and parents to deliver sessions on issues such as sleep hygiene and screen time.
This week The Times visited Elm Grove Primary School in Brighton, where children have benefitted from an NHS support worker based there one day a week.
Louise Willard, the head of Elm Grove, said more and more young children have been in distress since the pandemic, causing a “huge drop” in attendance.
She said: “We have got children now who are complete school refusers, from really young ages, who just don’t come in — that would have been completely unheard of before the pandemic.
“Children are much less resilient. They are often anxious about leaving their family. Lots feel overwhelmed by the noise and play of a busy school. The pandemic led to this awareness of mortality and being ill.
“The internet and social media means they are really aware of climate change and the war in Ukraine. It feels like children are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.”
Willard said the in-school therapy has helped children manage anxiety, and reduced the number having to take time out of lessons to visit external NHS services.
She said: “If you can intervene early, when children are still in primary school, it can be solved fairly quickly. Then those children can thrive and flourish. If children don’t attend primary school, these problems get worse in secondary school. It becomes a vicious cycle.”
The latest NHS statistics show one in six children aged 7-16 have a “probable” mental health disorder, up from one in nine before the pandemic. This has led to long waiting lists for specialist NHS services, which are seeing 700,000 children and young people a year.
Rising mental health problems were identified by the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank that first identified the problem of “ghost children”, as a key factor in high school absence.
In addition to the 125,000 children who missed at least half of school last year, 1.7 million children are missing at least 10 per cent of lessons, leaving them ill-prepared for the workplace.
A surge in depression among the young is fuelling record rates of economic inactivity, with 2.6 million adults in Britain currently out of work with long-term sickness.
‘My daughter has learnt skills for life’
The mental health practitioner Cleopatra Fraser with Iris Kemp. Iris’s mother said the support had been hugely beneficial for the family.
Iris is among thousands of children who have received specialist mental health support from therapists at school under the new NHS scheme.
The six-year-old, who attends Elm Grove Primary School in Brighton, has two autistic brothers and said she sometimes “finds it tricky”.
She joined a series of weekly small-group sessions which explored difficult feelings and challenges common in children with autistic siblings, equipping them with strategies to cope.
The sessions were led by Cleopatra Fraser, an NHS education mental health practitioner, who has worked at primary schools and secondary schools across Brighton since 2020.
Fraser, who sees children one-to-one and in small groups, said that since the pandemic a lot have developed “separation anxiety and school-based anxiety”.
She said: “The children with anxiety and low mood are getting younger. We’re seeing some in primary school talking about wanting to hurt themselves at a really young age.
“The pandemic has had a big impact — not just on being out of school — but a lot of children are now worrying about dying, worrying about their family dying.”
Fraser teaches the children evidence-based cognitive behavioural therapy, such as breathing strategies, to help children “grow up happy” and focus in lessons.
“It’s really important to get in there early. Learning ways to manage anxiety can stop it snowballing into a bigger problem, when the child might stop coming into school and miss out on education.”
Carla Kemp, Iris’s mother, said the support had been hugely beneficial for the family, and Iris had been happier after the sessions
“Autism has a ripple effect, and can take a toll on the mental health of the wider family. As adults, we’re more equipped to deal with it. But siblings can’t do that. Iris naturally puts aside her needs for her brothers, and a lot of parents of autistic children feel guilty about the siblings who are neurotypical because they’re just dragged along.
“It is fantastic to know she can talk about her feelings to someone who is completely neutral, not me or her teacher, and she has learnt a set of skills for the long term.”