UK: teachers need support to tackle pupils’ mental health issues

published 6 July 2017 updated 14 April 2022

Teacher unions in the UK have emphasised the need for staff to be supported by qualified healthcare professionals in order to best address mental health issues in students.

The unions were responding to the launch of a government programme to train a ‘Youth Mental Health First Aid Champion’ in every secondary school.

NASUWT: Need for support

“Teachers and school leaders are deeply concerned about the mental health issues being faced by the children and young people they teach,” said Chris Keates, General Secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).

Acknowledging that the Government is right to be concerned about pupils’ mental health, she said this announcement would not address the extent of the issues facing schools. “Teachers and school leaders take their duty of care to their pupils very seriously, but they cannot take the place of qualified healthcare professionals,” she added.

A major difficulty is that when mental health issues are identified in schools, access to qualified, external professionals and appropriate support services is, at best, limited and, in some cases, non-existent, due to the year-on-year cuts faced by these services, she said.

Whilst training sessions may be helpful, “they have the potential to place another burden and responsibility on the shoulders of teachers, who are already struggling to cope with excessive and unsustainable workloads”.

Teachers ignored

Keates found it also “deeply disappointing” that, while the mental health issues facing children and young people are recognised, yet again the extensive evidence of the mental health issues faced by teachers themselves has been ignored.

She urged the Government to tackle the contributory factors in the schools which are damaging mental health and wellbeing. This is in addition to providing pupils and teachers alike with direct and readily available access to mental health services, staffed by professionally qualified and trained staff.

statistics reveal brutal truths

Among the shocking statistics revealed by the NASUWT’s survey of 2,000 teachers and school leaders conducted in March 2017, 98 percent of teachers said they had come into contact with pupils whom they believe are experiencing mental health problems.

Also, 83 percent said their job has had an adverse impact on their wellbeing, 59 percent said it had adversely impacted on their mental health, and 52 percent said it has had a detrimental impact on their physical health.

NUT: Chronic under-funding

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) also commented on the proposals by the Department of Health and the Department for Education to give £200,000 funding to help teachers understand and identify mental health issues in children in every secondary school in England. “The Government needs to get real about prioritising mental health investment but, by their own figures, this amounts to £67 per head,” said Rosamund McNeil, Head of Education at the NUT. She insisted that mental health services had faced “years of chronic under-funding”.

She added: “Identifying pupils via schools is one key element but young people and children need specialist clinical help, near to where they live and fast enough to intervene early. Many children in every cohort have emotional and behavioural needs which require support from outside the school.” Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services need to be expanded to ensure schools have the appropriate places and fully trained professionals to refer families to, McNeil said.

Exam stress

Observing that some children cite the exam-factory approach to education as one of the reasons they experience high levels of stress, she said the Government should review the role of high-stakes testing in relation to children’s mental health and wellbeing. It should also listen carefully to the recommendations of the recent Education Select Committee’s report Children and young people's mental health - role of education inquiry.

McNeil also suggested that pastoral post numbers in schools should be increased and the curriculum needs to include adequate time for sport, physical activity and arts subjects, as this becomes increasingly difficult with the crisis in school funding.

She demanded that the Government give schools the funding, flexible curriculum, and staffing levels they need to support children and young people’s individual needs, as well as increasing national investment on local mental health support.