Is support for children’s mental health keeping up with demand?

The mental health of our children and young people has traditionally not always received the profile that it deserves within the public spotlight. Often there has been an absence of positive rhetoric, due to the lack of coordinated action. As a result, the issue has not received the attention and focus it warrants. Less than one percent of NHS funding is estimated to go to young people's mental health, despite evidence suggesting that 1 in 10 have a diagnosable mental health problem. Moreover, there is increasing and concerning evidence suggesting that the extent of these issues is growing.

However, there are signs that there is encouraging momentum behind dealing with the issue. Legislation has been passed to give mental health and physical health equal priority in law, and the recent Green Paper on the issue sets out a roadmap for joint working between schools and specialist mental health services. Whether the provisions in the Green Paper are implemented successfully remains to be seen. At this stage, there is a promising focus on creating teams of community-based health support and encouraging schools and colleges to put in place specific leads for mental health.

These developments are particularly interesting for us at Ecorys given our extensive work evaluating mental health interventions in schools, including the influential evaluation of the Mental Health Services and Schools Link Programme, which has been published by the Department for Education, and other ongoing studies on this theme. Schools are particularly important sites for supporting young people's mental health - young people spend considerable time at school and evidence shows that school staff are ideally placed to support young people and help them be mentally healthy. However, we also know that school staff sometimes feel they lack the confidence to deal with mental health issues and whilst resources and support may exist, they are not always readily available and can vary in quality. While there is plenty of potential to support mental health in schools, this needs to be realised.

One promising development to provide support to schools and their staff is the Mentally Healthy Schools website, a digital platform currently being tested in 50 primary schools across England, funded by the Royal Foundation and being delivered by three of the Heads Together charity partners  - the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, Place2Be and YoungMinds (with expert guidance from the Centre for Mental Health and advice/support from the National Association of Head Teachers). This approach is of particular interest as it aims to provide evidence-based resources and support for all school staff in a straightforward, practical way. It’s hoped that through the website, staff will be able to find relevant teaching materials and advice easily. This will increase their awareness, knowledge and confidence on mental health issues allowing children and young people to get the best support possible.

As always, the two key questions are whether it will work and what can we learn more widely on such a crucial issue. As the evaluators of the project, it is our job at Ecorys to find out. This is an exciting task, but not one that is straightforward. We need to understand the details of how the website works and why it impacts different staff across different types of schools and areas. This requires us to collect and synthesise evidence from numerous sources, combining focus group feedback with case study information and linking staff survey results with fine-tuned information from web analytics tools. It also requires us to harness our existing, detailed understanding of the challenges faced by schools and young people in terms of mental health so that we can provide rigorous, clear evidence that helps support any future development.

Our work on this evaluation is already underway, with our final report due around the end of the year. For further information about the Mentally Healthy Schools website evaluation, or to discuss the views expressed in this blog, please do not hesitate to contact the author at Diarmid.Campbell-Jack@ecorys.com