How will schools support the ‘anxious generation’?
In classrooms across the country, countless young people are silently struggling with their mental health and the pandemic has only made this worse.
This panel explores the role that schools can play to support young people through the crisis of mental health. It looks at how this crisis has gotten worse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel asks whether this is the responsibility of schools to tackle or if that falls elsewhere. They set out practical steps to take including providing funding and time, in order to support the 'anxious generation'.
Sarah Bibi - PhD Researcher at The University of Manchester and Teach First trustee
- Theresa Ball - Deputy Headteacher at The Crest Academy
- Robin Banerjee - Professor of Developmental Psychology at University of Sussex
- Dr Lesley French - Head of Clinical Help in Schools at Anna Freud National Centre for Children & Families
- Nicola Noble – Co-Headteacher at Surrey Square Primary School
Mental wellbeing of students has been affected by the pandemic
If we were to survey school leaders across the country right now, I’d be willing to wager that most would express major concerns about the mental wellbeing of their students. Pastoral systems are flooded with growing numbers of young people expressing mental ill health symptoms. Schools don’t have enough provision on their own, external services are overloaded, and while online provision is helpful, it’s unlikely to be enough in the most challenging cases. So what can we do to support our young people?
Up until recently, the British school calendar has changed very little since I was a student. Young people expect the annual sports day, the nervy transition into secondary school, GCSE exams, a prom - but from 11 March 2020, their routines, expectations and life as we know it, suddenly changed. Over a year in and things are still very uncertain.
Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress: a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come next. With current events massively contributing to that sense of uncertainty, it’s unsurprising that for a lot of young people, that anxiety is intensified. When feelings of anxiety become extreme, last for longer than six months and interfere with an individual’s life, this may be classified as an anxiety disorder.
That’s not to say the wellbeing of our young people was perfect before COVID-19. Cast your mind back to being a teenager: for many, this was a time trapped between having most major life decisions made for you, to making your own – which can be a challenging mental space to navigate. Add a global pandemic, a breakdown of routines, and parental angst and it’s little wonder that young people have had increased difficulty with behaviour, restlessness or attention.
There’s a rise in children needing support with anxiety
Evidence of increased anxiety during this time conflicts with other studies finding it was at normal levels. Furthermore, mental health referrals for children were reportedly low in April and May 2020, but an increase was seen in June 2020 with the easing of restrictions.
This may seem like we don’t have as big a problem as we thought – but dive a little deeper, and correlation does not equal causation (as every good scientist knows). More than 338,000 children were referred to CAMHS in 2017, but less than a third received treatment within the year. The NHS reports that nearly 300,000 children were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder by Sept 2020.
Schools have felt the rise in students needing mental health support – but this also means more are reaching out for help. The internet, social media, and widened access to news and information have all increased recognition and communication about mental ill health, especially amongst young people.
Our new 4-tier mental health support strategy
It is positive that awareness is rising, and that mental health is a topic of conversation. But as our levels of recognition increase, the necessity of action does too. And this is where our hands feel tied.
At Hammersmith Academy we have initiated a mental health support strategy, where we assign all students to a specific tier of required support (with four tiers in total). Tier 1 support ranges from:
- general support designed to help everyone (including the PSHE programme delivered by tutors)
- three annual mental health awareness weeks
- extra-curricular activities
- our character curriculum
- a mental and physical health drop down day
The aim is to have the majority of students’ mental health needs to be met by this Tier 1 provision. For selected students in Tier 2, we have trained staff volunteers in mental health first aid and cognitive behaviour therapy techniques, alongside the school nurse. In Tier 3 we use the expertise of our school councillors and a family support practitioner. Tier 4 includes the use of external services for example CAHMS.
Prior to the pandemic, we had one school councillor working two days a week. We have now increased this to two councillors, working three days between them. We also receive provision from MIND in Hammersmith and Fulham (LBHF), who provide us with two more councillors one day a week (free of charge). We also pay a small sum (£7,000) to Family Support for extra provision one day a week. These additional staff members provide invaluable support to the students (but they all have waiting lists).
What steps can we take to solve the growing mental health crisis in schools?
Teachers see young people significantly more than any other professional (such as social workers and GPs), and at times, even their parents. Because of this, we have so much potential to support their metal wellbeing. Schools contain many people who care so much and have the good will to want to go the extra mile for each child. What school staff often lack is the training, understanding, and knowledge about the right ways to go about this. Teachers are not doctors, and pastoral leaders are not psychiatrists. We are unable to diagnose, we are unable to prescribe – but we can listen, learn, and we can refer. Yet for now, we cannot solve. Those with the ability to solve lack the funding, the contacts, and the time.
So, what are we going to do? How are we going to empower willing school staff to support the anxious generation effectively? How are we going to provide the funding, the time and, most importantly, the skills to do this with a strategic approach to instigate positive change?
During this Future Terms panel, we will unpick this crucial topic and dive deeper into the growing crisis of the mental health of the next generation.