Free article: Is there a mental health crisis in our schools?

Published: Wednesday, 01 July 2015

The mental health of children and young people is at the top of the agenda at the moment. Increased anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders are bringing some schools to crisis point. Will the DfE’s guidance help?


  • A recent ATL survey suggests that schools feel ill-prepared to make up the deficit in mental health services and 45% felt that the training they had received was insufficient.
  • There is concern about the level of mental health difficulties pupils are exhibiting.
  • Future in mind, an across-department publication, would like to see joint training programmes in place.
  • The DfE has published two documents of its own to provide advice on addressing mental health needs in our schools.

An Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) survey of 850 professionals found that nine out of ten schools or colleges have had to provide more support to pupils with mental health problems over the last two years. Cuts in child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) was one of the reasons given for this, with schools having to make up the deficit themselves. The survey suggests that schools feel ill-prepared to do this and 45% felt that the training they had received was insufficient.

There is much speculation about the cause of the increase in mental health needs. Reporting on a survey of teachers, academics at London Metropolitan University suggest that exams could take a portion of the blame. Ninety per cent of teachers indicated that standardised tests and exams were causing pupils to become ‘very anxious’. Ninety-four per cent of secondary school teachers reported that some pupils in their schools developed stress-related conditions around exam times.

Future in mind

Future in mind: promoting, protecting and improving our children and young people’s mental health looks into this issue further. The taskforce producing the report represents the departments of education, health and care and attempts to identify what the problems are.

The document recognises the need for schools and their staff to be more aware of how to support pupils with mental health difficulties. Professionals should be involved in promoting good mental wellbeing and resilience, preventing medical health problems and the early identification of need.

It is recommended that schools should have:

  • someone named to have specific responsibility for mental health in the school
  • greater access to personal budgets for children and young people who have a longer-term condition or disorder.

Joint training programmes should be made available so that named individuals in schools and mental health services share their understanding and support effective communication and referrals.

The government’s response

The government is aware of the concerns surrounding mental health, and two important guidance documents have been published:

  • Mental health and behaviour in schools: Departmental advice for school leaders and counsellors
  • Counselling in schools: a blueprint for the future: Departmental advice for school leaders and counsellors.

They are both non-statutory advice that clarifies the responsibilities of schools. However, this is not something that schools can tackle on their own. Advice is given about signposting towards national organisations that offer materials, help and advice, and to provision being made available locally.

Advice given to schools includes:

  • At least one member of staff should know every pupil well and know what to do if they have concerns.
  • Using of PSHE education to help children develop resilience, confidence and the ability to learn.
  • Involving the child psychology service.
  • Helping children develop social skills.
  • Working with parents and through peers.
  • Using the ‘Strengths and difficulties questionnaire’ (SDQ) to help identify those pupils with serious difficulties.

The Government would like to see every school having access to a counselling service, and acknowledges that referral to CAMHS will be needed in some cases. In order to ease referrals, they advise that schools should have a clear process for identifying those children who require support and collect evidence of their behaviour. Developing a strong working relationship with CAMHS might also help.


In their document Counselling in schools, the DfE provides advice for improving existing services and how schools might establish a new service.

It is suggested that counselling might be used:

  • as a preventative intervention – where there are emerging signs of behavioural changes
  • for assessment purposes – including assessment of risk, goal setting and referral to other services where appropriate
  • as an early intervention measure
  • as parallel support alongside specialist CAMHS
  • as a step-down intervention following the closing of a case by specialist mental health services.

If a school believes that there will be a positive impact on attainment of disadvantaged pupils then pupil premium funding can be used for setting up a counselling service.

There are different ways of organising this service:

  • contracting individual counsellors directly
  • engaging with a local authority team of counsellors
  • contracting with a third party, e.g. voluntary sector
  • paying for time from a specialist children’s mental health service (CAMHS) counsellor
  • training and development for existing members of staff.

Counselling can sometimes be confused with pastoral support. It is a very specific type of intervention that requires counsellors to be properly trained, supported, professionally supervised and insured. Counsellors must work within agreed policy frameworks and to agreed standards and will need clinical supervision as well as managerial support within the school.

Staff employed as counsellors should:

  • have the minimum of a diploma in counselling (typically two years part-time study)
  • be on an accredited voluntary register
  • ideally hold accreditation with a professional body.

This does not mean that existing staff cannot be trained to become counsellors, but this training will need to be professionally recognised. Staff will need continued support and development while carrying out the role.

The future

Reading between the lines of these documents, there is an awareness that CAMHS services may not always be accessible to schools and that schools must fill some of the gaps themselves. This might be through prevention and interventions, such as building resilience, social skills programmes and ‘character education’, or through more specialist services, such as counselling or the commissioning of support directly.

As school budgets are predicted to decrease, school leaders might feel a little resentful that their schools are being asked to make up a gap in a service that should be routinely available to them. However, with no realistic alternative, this might be the only course of action for schools to take.

Further information


Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you to put the ideas in this article into practice: 

About the author

Dr Suzanne O'Connell was headteacher of a junior school in Warwickshire for eleven years. During her teaching career she has worked in primary and middle schools in Coventry, Bradford and Leeds. She now works as a freelance education writer and editor. Suzanne can be contacted on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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