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More than a million children and young people will have access to mental health support at school, as the NHS rapidly expands services to help deal with the huge disruption caused by coronavirus and lockdown.
From this year, teams of experts are offering support to children experiencing anxiety, depression, and other common mental health issues.
Around 400 mental health support teams will be up and running covering 3,000 schools in England, offering support to almost three million pupils, by 2023.
The roll-out represents a dramatic acceleration of the programme announced in the NHS Long Term Plan, funded from £79 million to boost mental health support for children and young people in England, which is part of £500 million Government pot for investment in mental health services.
Experts hope that by intervening early they can prevent problems escalating into serious mental health issues, with health chiefs warning that the isolation and upheaval of the pandemic can be compounded by factors like pressure experienced on social media platforms.
The NHS Long Term Plan intensified progress in investment in young people’s mental health services delivered over the past decade, with funding for these services set to rise faster than both overall mental health spending and total NHS funding increases, every year.
Referrals to the teams can be made by teachers or GPs as well as in cases like Gloucestershire by the young person themselves via the texting service they have established.
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS, said: “Coronavirus has taken its toll on us all, not least children who have been stuck at home unable to see their friends and without the routine of school life.
“So it’s an urgent necessity to expand services as we are doing, after what will have been for many a year of turmoil.
“Increasing investment in mental health services, particularly for children and young people, is a key part of the NHS Long Term Plan but we are now going even further and faster, because offering help and support early, before problems get worse, can sometimes prevent problems persisting into adulthood.”
Coronavirus, and the actions necessary to slow its spread, have caused major disruption to children’s school and home lives over the past year.
Mental health problems among five to 16-year-olds in England have risen from one in 10 in 2017 to around one in six last summer.
More than one in four children has had trouble sleeping while one in 10 often or always felt lonely during the pandemic, according to one recent study.
Claire Murdoch, Mental Health Director for NHS England, said: “Children have had their normal routines turned upside down during the pandemic whether it be curbs on their social life, school or their hobbies, and so it is only right that the NHS accelerates its mental health support for young people.
“As children have returned to the classroom, dedicated NHS mental health support teams will be in place at 3,000 schools across the country ready to listen to any anxieties they may have and I would urge everyone whether you’re a teacher, parent or child to access this help before any issues escalate.”
Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, Nadine Dorries said:
“This has been an exceptionally difficult year and children and young people have been particularly impacted by disruption to their routine, education and social lives.
“Mental Health Support teams provide fantastic support not just for our children and young people, but also parents and teachers, which is vital for creating an environment which truly promotes positive mental wellbeing.
“I remain committed to doing all I can to ensure mental health support is there for those who need it.”
Experts in the teams will offer children one-to-one and group therapy sessions while helping to improve the whole school’s communities awareness of mental health through training sessions for parents and workshops for teachers.
There are now over 280 mental health support teams set up or in training. 183 teams are operational and ready to support children and young people in around 3,000 schools and colleges, covering 15% of pupils in England. A further 103 teams are in development with more to be commissioned this year, which will deliver the NHS Long Term Plan commitment to reach 20 – 25% of pupils a year early (2022). 35% of pupils in England are expected to be have access to a mental health support team by 2023.
The first 59 teams began work last March but had to swiftly adapt to provide help during lockdown.
Children in Gloucestershire have been able to text their local mental health support team, with a health professional responding within an hour during the school day offering them advice.
Teams extended support to parents and carers confronted with home schooling as well as remote working, furlough or redundancy, in Essex using an online ‘befriending service’. Parents were offered one-to-one therapy sessions, online parenting courses and given a buddy so they could have a support network to share advice with.
In Kent, teams have provided 20-minute telephone counselling sessions for parents struggling with the competing demands of life under lockdown alongside virtual drop-in sessions for school staff on how to support children with their mental health.
Teams in Nottingham have been offering parents and teachers at more than 100 schools’ advice on how to spot that the children and young people are struggling with their mental health.
Those with issues are then offered tips on how to cope including workshops on how to sleep better. The teams also run wellbeing sessions for teachers.
One of those offering advice, is Rebecca Webster, an NHS therapist working in the Nottinghamshire Mental Health Support Team, who quickly adapted services during lockdown:
‘Having just finished our training, we had to set up a whole new team while facing an ever-changing environment. But our flexibility and adaptability have allowed us to reach out to more people than expected in our first year of working, thanks to online workshops attended by hundreds of young people, parents and teachers.’
One parent, who benefited from Rebecca and her teams support said: “Our local Mental Health Support Team provided us with lots of useful strategies, helping us feel confident that we can make a change to our child’s life. We didn’t feel judged that we had been struggling and needed some additional help from a professional – we were at ease and listened to throughout all sessions.”
The acceleration of mental health support teams in schools is only one part of a wider package of NHS support that will be on offer to children and young people as they come to terms with the impact of the pandemic and lockdown.
The NHS has introduced 24/7 crisis support lines, face to face, telephone or digital appointments so issues can be identified, and help given sooner.
The government’s £79 million boost to children and young people’s mental health will also enable around 22,500 more children and young people to access community health services in 21/22 and around 2,000 more children and young people to access eating disorder services in 21/22.
This funding is in addition to the significant funding already committed to mental health services as part of the NHS Long Term Plan which will see a further 345,000 children and young people access mental health services by 2024.
The NHS is also urging parents and carers to be alert to signs that their children may be experiencing anxiety or low mood as they return to school.
Signs that parents should look out for include:
- You might find they are more upset or find it hard to manage their emotions
- They may appear anxious or distressed
- Increasing trouble with sleeping and eating
- Appearing low in mood, withdrawn or tearful
- Reporting worried or negative thoughts about themselves or their future
- For younger children, there may be more regressed behaviour such as bed wetting or separation anxiety
If a parent is worried about their child’s mental health, they can help by:
- Making time to talk to your child
- Allow your child to talk about their feelings
- Try to understand their problems and provide reassurance that you have heard them and are there to help
- Help your child do positive activities including exercise
- Try to keep a routine over the next few months
- Look after your own mental health
- Talk to a teacher, your GP or health worker about your child’s mental health. They can refer you to the right support.
- If your child is facing a mental health crisis, contact your local 24/7 NHS helpline