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The mental health fad in schools

May 2, 2016

I’ve observed in the past that it is often the posts that just straighten out the facts that are most controversial. This has once more been true in my post yesterday saying that the statistics being used to show that there was a mental health crisis in schools don’t actually seem to show that. There have been lots of responses objecting to the idea that anyone could doubt that there was.

I was restrained. I am the last person to think that mental health is not important. I’ve suffered stress at work including leaving schools over it, and more than one person close to me has suffered from mental health problems. I’ve repeatedly blogged about teacher stress and depression. I am the last person to treat mental health issues as insignificant or try to add to the stigma.

But, I do have the following opinions:

  1. Teachers are not therapists and not doctors. We can try to be supportive and we have an important duty to try to refer students to those who can help. But we are not qualified to treat mental health problems.
  2. Like SEN, mental health is full of folk tales and quack treatments. Anything done to support people with mental health problems, or to prevent mental health problems, should be based on the best evidence and judged by people with appropriate clinical qualifications. Even some of the treatments with the best average effects are ineffective or even harmful in some cases.
  3. The causes of mental health problems are complex. It is simply not good enough to assume that anything any child could worry about is a cause of mental health problems that has to be eliminated. The aim of removing worry from childhood, anxiety from adolescence or pressure from studying is not a realistic one.
  4. Charities working with young people should not be given a free pass. We know from Kids Company that it is perfectly possible for them to be wasting money on vanity projects. It is not impossible for them to be promoting nonsense or ripping off schools. They should be scrutinised, just as schools should.

I do think CAMHS is very important. I do not have a problem with trained counsellors in schools. I do think teachers should be familiar with the signs of mental illness. But we should be very careful. Firstly, panic will not help anybody, least of all the emotionally vulnerable. Secondly, there are snake oil salesmen out there willing to exploit the ignorance of those hoping to assist children with their mental health. One reader passed on this:

 

NLP

NLP is a discredited fad whose practitioners keep looking for opportunities to get into an educational setting. A mental health scare is another such opportunity. Another reader passed on a “fact” about mental health that actually came from a practitioner of “alternative medicine”. Thirdly, there are ethical issues in intervening in students’ lives and hoping to change their thoughts and beliefs. They are entitled to privacy, even about their problems. While I believe that meditation and mindfulness is probably good for mental health, I have grave ethical concerns about religious practices being passed on in a secularised form to children whose parents have not chosen to send them to a faith school. Trying to avoid causing upset to students may lead to attempts to curtail free speech or to remove challenging content from their studies. Finally, my concern is that there is a political debate being obscured by this. Progressives have always promoted their vision of education by claiming that it is better for student wellbeing, and by trying to pursue non-academic aims. A panic about student mental health can be used to pursue this agenda. It is repeatedly being used as an excuse to call for an end to testing, despite no evidence that testing is a cause of serious mental health problems.

So let’s be very careful here. Do not be won over by those who simply assert they are raising awareness, removing stigma, saving lives or making children happy. Mental health is an area where evidence matters and much of it is already out there and tells us that there are no simple answers. We do not have a duty to turn schools into therapeutic establishments or campaign groups. There really is no mandate for the projects mentioned here, where a school is introducing “yoga in KS4 PSHE”, building “a mental health app”, or  “producing a film on the dangers of high consumption of High Energy Drinks”. No matter how worthy it sounds, no matter how much it gives us a chance to announce our compassion, we should be wary. Boundless compassion and no evidence won’t save children from mental illness; it will turn schools into a version of Kids Company. Pastoral responsibilities are utterly vital, but we should never forget that the biggest difference we make in children’s lives is by educating them.

14 comments

  1. Your last sentence is by far the most significant. When teachers are in charge children feel secure. The state of nature so beloved of JJ Rousseau is a bloody jungle, as any number of bullied kids can attest. And when children are learning, the sense of achievement is a prophylactic against stress and depression.

    I think a parallel can be drawn with SEN: way back in 1998 when the Minette Marin visited Kobi Nazrul, she noted that only 3% of their pupils were on the register, whereas other schools with comparable demographics in Tower Hamlets had between 30 to 40% on the SEN register. At the time, all their pupils passed their 7+ SATs in English; my own test results confirmed that the least able pupils scored >85 on the London Reading Test–and even higher on Young’s Parallel Spelling Test. In her Telegraph article, Minette wrote: “Something stands out a mile here: a negligible rate of SEN registration seem to go hand in hand with a very high rate of reading success”.

    It would certainly be interesting to conduct a study of schools like Michaela and compare the mental health of their pupils with ones which have programmes like NLP in place. Given that the 2010 evaluation of SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) programme found that it “failed to impact significantly upon pupils’ social and emotional skills, general mental health difficulties, pro-social behaviour or behaviour problems … Analysis of school climate scores indicated significant reductions in pupils’ trust and respect for teachers, liking for school, and feelings of classroom and school supportiveness during SEAL implementation.”, I think we can make a pretty fair guess what a new study would find.


  2. An excellent reflection on the comments to your previous post. Thank you for your blog. I may not agree with all your write, but your posts always make me reflect on my assumptions and return to the evidence base. I agree with all the points you have made, particularly point 2 – which is why we do need more psychologist (educational and clinical) to work with schools and provide the professional advice and support needed to ensure teachers can teach. I am not so convinced that Kids Company are necessarily the devil you have painted – the waters are too muddied by politics. We have to remember that Camila Batmanghelidjh openly criticised the government and demanded they do more to support children and young people, before her fall from grace.

    There are no simple answers. I totally agree. Mental wellbeing is the goal. Schools have a part to play in this, but so do parents and communities and the wider society. You are right. We don’t objectively know if there is a crisis in mental health for children and young people. However there is a crisis is in funding and access to evidenced based services. Hence why the government is focused on schools filling the gap and why it is so often reported in the news.


    • Seriously? You really want to go there with Kids Company? Even after the documentary?


    • ‘We have to remember that Camila Batmanghelidjh openly criticised the government and demanded they do more to support children and young people, before her fall from grace.’

      You obviously didn’t read the reports very carefully. Cameron was all for her receiving as much money as possible. It was the politically neutral civil servants who blocked the final big payments, because they had bothered to look into Kids’ Company’s financial management.

      Cameron does come out of this very badly, but for the opposite of the reason that you imply.


  3. Pastoral responsibilities are utterly vital, but we should never forget that the biggest difference we make in children’s lives is by educating them.

    Love this… so true.


  4. A really interesting piece – thank you. It’s hard to find anything I disagree with, which I know is unusual! In particular, I recognise the danger that by taking on responsibility for students’ mental health schools will become even more overstretched, distracted from education as their primary purpose.

    But as well as a teacher I’m a parent, so I have an anecdote to share.

    My eldest is 11, and for unrelated reasons we had to withdraw him from his school in November. At that point the students in year 6 were starting to do practice SATs. Twice a week. He was glad to be out because the pressure was the last thing he needed on top of the problems with other students.

    There might not be good evidence that (pre-GCSE) testing is, nationally, a major cause of stress for students. But there is, I’m pretty sure, good evidence of increased mental health issues across the board. Presumably it’s reasonable to ask the question if testing could be part of the problem?

    http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/apr/29/government-expert-warns-child-mental-health-crisis-worse-than-suspected

    I think we all know that individual schools and teachers probably worry kids more than they should. (In contrast, middle child didn’t even realise he was doing SATs in year 2.) But if it’s more than that, then I think we have a responsibility to admit there’s a wider issue. And if so, it’s a problem not for schools to address seperately, but a strategic issue higher up the chain of command.

    Now, that’s political – well above my pay grade! But I think we need to balance our recognition that we’re neither therapists nor CPNs, with the insight that we might be “first on scene”. I’m a first aider, not a paramedic, but I can still help out while the causes get addressed by those who have the power to change things.


    • The problem isn’t so much the SATs and GCSEs (although I would be the first to admit that they aren’t very good tests), but the failure of the profession to use tests on a regular basis. We’ve made a huge industry out of ‘assessment’ instead–presumably because it is less stressful for pupils, but in reality to shield ourselves from direct evidence of what our pupils can and cannot actually do.


  5. I was going to post a reply about the article written prior to this one, that I felt hit the wrong target and was too shallow in giving too much importance to media articles. Some will use it to justify their non-interventionist or educational approach and in my opinion that just increases the stigma. I can think of a teacher writing on twitter that children with mental health issues should just have a ‘kick up the backside’. I wonder whether he thinks the same about the teachers in the same school that have written honestly about their mental health issues.

    But this article addresses pretty much all of the concerns I had. You may not be bothered by my view or support for what you say here, and that’s fine, but the more balanced articles about mental health, the better.

    All four of the points are completely accurate. There is a systemic problem with adolescent mental health in particular that goes far beyond the media sensationalism and trivialisation that comes about, for example once a link with tests is made.

    Tests themselves are not a problem. There may well be some children that have issues with tests and stress. Sometimes the pressure of tests is added to other problems, and that may tip students over the edge. But worrying about tests is very different from the life shattering effects that mental health issues can have.

    Teachers should not have to be mental health counsellors. As you and others in the comments say, teachers should be able to recognise problems and be the first port of call. Schools are ‘in loco parentis’ and just as we would not expect a parent to carry out the therapy involved once they see a problem exists, we can’t expect teachers to add this incredibly difficult and important role to their repertoire of skills.

    More school support is needed, by trained professionals as Andrew says.

    In addressing the wider problem, there are systemic problems that just are not possible for schools to address. Schools (and paramedics and police – 20-40% of police time is spent dealing with problems caused by mental health issues) at the moment have to try to pick up the pieces of a system that is in crisis.

    I do feel that we have to avoid the trivialisation of mental health issues and to repeat, making such a large link with tests is not helpful in my opinion.

    Finally, scrutiny is really important. Yes for charities that in many, many cases are doing sterling work in supporting those in need. We don’t hear about them, because they are not vanity projects and they are not getting government funding. Trustees have an important role here.

    But also scrutiny of where and how Government funding for mental health is used is also needed.


  6. ‘It is repeatedly being used as an excuse to call for an end to testing, despite no evidence that testing is a cause of serious mental health problems.’

    Indeed, and nobody was ever killed by hard work – except, apparently, in the minds of the anti-education campaigners who call themselves progressive educationalists.


    • So we are meant to teach “grit” without ever putting them under pressure? I’d love to know how the “mindfulness” people intend to square that circle.

      Test induce stress. But it is well known, in adults at least, that a bit of stress is actually good for you.

      Far from being bad for students, I would argue that external exams under pressure are exactly what our senior students need to help grow up. Younger students less so, you have to introduce it gradually.


  7. Good post – with you on almost everything.

    One – trivial perhaps – thing to quibble with…

    Your description of ‘mindfulness’ as a ‘religious practice passed-on in a secularised form’ is, I think, a little precious & blinkered. Yes, to be honest, for millennia, it’s almost only been religious practitioners who’ve noticed its usefulness, but as a technique It could almost be called ‘single focused concentration despite distracting stimuli’. What on earth is wrong with that? Sounds like a traditionalist’s dream tool for developing ideal learning behaviours. If you’re just focusing your mind on your breathing, you’re not chanting mantras, trying to reach a deity or even trying to experience enlightenment. I can hardly see this as foisting religion on unconsenting parents.

    Are you saying that it’s been copyrighted by Buddhists and other contemplative traditions and we’re being disrespectful to them? You might as well accuse an insistence on ‘obedience’ from children as being back-door religious observance, because it was a key part of traditional theistic religions.

    Think there might be some baby in that bathwater.


  8. […] health disorders are serious and providing more accessible, effective and sustainable services should be a top public policy priority, inside and outside of schools. “Teenage angst,” […]


  9. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  10. […] In The mental health fad in schools I explained why, despite children’s mental health being a legitimate concern to have, the currently fashionable preoccupation with it should be scrutinised: […]



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