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BPS Policy Unit

Improving Mental Health Provision in Schools: six policy take-aways

08 May 2019 | by BPS Policy Unit

The British Psychological Society and the APPG on Psychology recently held a panel discussion at the House of Commons on the importance of improving mental health provisions in schools.

The event brought together parliamentarians, policy makers, medical practitioners and key third sector representatives to discuss an area that has been an increasing focus of UK public policy in recent years.

While the conversation was far-ranging, six issues emerged.

Early intervention is key

Given that 1 in 8 children and young people have a diagnosable mental health condition, this area has been an increasing focus of UK public policy in recent years.

Dr Nihara Krause, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Founder of Stem4, noted that the evidence in psychological literature showed that incidences of mood disorders and substance misuse often start in childhood and peak in adolescence. She went on to note that adverse childhood experiences have a major impact on children and young people’s mental health and can have life-long consequences.

Tom Milson, Headteacher at Eagle House School Bramley, also picked up on this point and argued that:

“when people with complex and challenging behaviours receive the right support at the right time, they can flourish”.

The general consensus was that early intervention led to improved quality of life, and could empower families and schools to support children.

Burden and responsibility

Kathryn Scott, Director of Policy at the British Psychological Society, outlined the importance of recognising the roles and limitations of existing infrastructure.

“Schools are at the very centre of the mental health ecosystem [and] play a vital role in supporting young people, either through their own provision or through liaison with local child and adolescent mental health services”.

There was an opportunity to resituate the school as the premise where much needed early intervention services could be integrated.

However, there was an acknowledgement that the responsibility for student wellbeing should not solely be placed within schools, as these institutions have been subject to funding cuts and local authorities have reduced their level of external services and support due to spending constraints.

Training and service gaps

Another theme that emerged throughout the discussion was the importance of training and providing the right support to fulfil this responsibility and duty of care schools had towards their students.

Dr Krause, commented that, while there were clear gaps that needed to be addressed, it was unfortunate that there were universal programmes in place “that are not well known but are accessible to all schools.”

She cited examples of current targeted programmes addressing self-harm and went on to stress the importance of developing a comprehensive strategy to inform and provide good practice in all schools.

Tom Milson drew on his experience as a teacher to argue that, while there were cases and examples of good practice, mainstream schools had a limited capacity to support young people with additional needs and budget constraints while specialist provision was dependent on a myriad of external factors rather than simply addressing student need.

In response Dr Krause noted that many third sector organisations had stepped up to provide this support but that the lack of regulation could lead to fragmented levels of care and inequitable services.

Words matter

While the government had made a commitment to the “parity of esteem” framework, this should mean more than simply valuing mental health equally with physical health.

Dr Krause argued that this commitment meant “tackling mental health issues with the same energy and priority as we have tackled physical illness.”

Krause also recognised that terms such “resilience” could be very useful and had great psychological value. However there was potential to misuse such terms in order to displace the “responsibility on children and young people to develop the ability to cope with difficulties themselves.”

Therefore it was of paramount importance to include psychological evidence, proper training, and support in order to ensure that mental health provisions were efficiently implemented within schools.

One size does not fit all

The panellists all welcomed Ofsted’s recognition that the one-size fits all approach is not working.

However, the speakers stressed that it was important to set out the required structures and frameworks to enable all parts of the mental health ecosystem to work together collaboratively.

Kathryn Scott highlighted that the BPS had done substantial work on the subject through its Children and Young People Campaign and that there were clear opportunities for a strategic reimagining of the whole system.

Given that ‘’93% of teachers agree that the current education system places a greater focus on academic performance than the well-being of children and young people” the time was right and there were many opportunities for policymakers and practitioners “to press for real change for children and young people.’’

Dr Gavin Morgan echoed this call to action and argued that the focus on assessment and performance metrics had occurred at the expense of fostering emotional wellbeing and that:

“children and young people [now] see their self-worth based on the grades they get… which is an incredible amount of pressure.”

Towards a ‘whole-system’ approach

Dr Morgan, observed that while schools had control over their own budgets, they were now placed in a position where they were responsible for doing more with less.

Going forward, there was a clear need to recognise effective schools as ones that took into account mental health and wellbeing measures and fully integrated them in their operative frameworks.

This point was also picked up by Tom Milson who argued that it was important that we work collaboratively with all parts of the school community, including students, families, staff, while acknowledging the impact of local and national policies.

Tom also argued that a ‘whole-school approach’ would also have to take into account the mental health and wellbeing of teachers and that both pupils and their families “should feel involved and consulted in the process”.

Dr Krause commented that this could open the door for a conversation between pupils and clinicians to identify targeted needs, positive support and even alternative treatment routes.

For more about the APPG on Psychology’s upcoming event on prevention or the British Psychological Society’s wider programme of work contact [email protected]


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