Too many pupils with mental health challenges are not receiving adequate support in our schools

This Tuesday was World Mental Health Day. People all over the world shared personal stories and helped to raise awareness. The day encourages the millions who have suffered from poor mental health in one form or another to speak openly about their experiences and challenge the stigma which has caused so many to suffer in silence. When people speak out, we need to make sure that the right support is available. Right now, that is not the case for young people in Scotland’s schools.   

If we’re to ‘Get It Right For Every Child’ in Scotland, we need to take some urgent action on mental health. The Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) estimates that 3 pupils in every classroom will have experienced mental health issues by the time they are 16. Mental health issues are regularly compounded by existing inequalities in society. For example, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to experience a mental health condition and girls tend to be more affected than boys.

Yet when it comes to supporting these pupils, there are too often gaping holes in provision as well as in education. Many teachers do not feel that they have adequate training to provide mental health support. A recent survey by SAMH found that two in three teachers felt they lacked training.

Years of austerity have seen cuts to the number of specialist staff such as educational psychologists and ending bursaries certainly hasn’t helped recruit more where there are the funds. This has loaded even more pressure and responsibility onto already overburdened and underequipped classroom teachers.

Provision of counselling services across schools is poor. A recent BBC investigation found that 14 council areas do not have any on-site counsellors in schools, whilst many more have only partial support. In this area we lag behind Wales and Northern Ireland, where steps have been taken to ensure counselling is provided in all secondary schools.  

To put it simply, too many pupils with mental health challenges are not receiving adequate support in our schools. This in turn contributes towards the unacceptably long waiting times for CAMHS, Children & Adolescent Mental Health services. CAMHS should be for those in crisis but too often young people and their families feel they have nowhere else to turn.

It is clear that we need to do something about this. SAMH are already running a campaign on mental health in schools. They are calling for a programme to train all school staff in mental health, provide counselling services in all schools, and let young people stay in specialist services till they are 25. These proposals will make a real difference to young people and the Scottish Government should work with local councils to take them up.

To tackle much of this problem at source though, we need to look at mental health education. That is, teaching every young person in Scotland what good and poor mental health is, how to manage their own mental health, how to support others who are ill and where to go if they need help.

These are essential life skills every pupil should leave school with and the Scottish Young Greens are launching a campaign to make this ambition a reality.

As a result of our Education Committee’s report on Personal & Social Education, the Scottish Government have committed to undertaking a PSE review, under the remit of their Mental Health strategy. The review will report next year and this guarantee of mental health education should be one of its outcomes. This is not an issue that can be kicked into the long grass or buried in an endless process of further reviews and soft recommendations.

The Young Greens’ campaign will focus on making sure that every young person receives high quality mental health education and that we improve the transition from school to college or university for those receiving treatment & support.              

That shouldn’t be the only result of the PSE review of course. I’m delighted that just over a year after I began raising these issues, the remit of the review includes not just mental health education but issues such as the importance of consent in sexual relationships and the need for inclusive sex & relationship education, which means LGBTI+ inclusion.

PSE should be an exciting, vibrant part of every young person’s education, covering everything from the above issues to citizenship & voting, personal financial management, employment skills, drugs & alcohol, your rights in the workplace and far more.

Taking this holistic and realistic approach to preparing our young people to lead successful, happy lives is exactly what we mean by Getting It Right For Every Child. High quality, universal mental health education should be just the start.

This article first appeared in the National