School was my safe space. Our children should have the same respite today

Natasha Devon is putting Gove-o-philes, the Department of Education, and Theresa May on notice: something has to change to solve the crisis in mental health provision

“My child/pupil is self-harming/suicidal and we’re still waiting for a referral. What can we do, when the services just aren’t there?”

There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not asked this question, in some form.

I’m yet to formulate anything approaching a satisfactory answer. The truth is, short of the entire country taking a day off and storming the Houses of Parliament, I don’t know what it will take for the government to realise their rhetoric isn’t making the millions of severely sick children in the UK any better.

On the ground

The statistics paint a grim picture: one in ten children, three in an average classroom, has a diagnoseable mental health condition. One in five is at risk of developing issues in later life. Self-harm in girls aged between the ages of 13 and 16 rose by 70% in the years 2014-2017, whilst anxiety has been identified as the fastest growing illness in under 21s. 60% of young people referred for further mental health treatment by their GP are not being seen. Additionally, Javed Khan, chief executive of Banardos said that young people’s mental health had never been worse in the organisation’s 152 year history.

Meanwhile, CAHMS were slashed by a conservative estimate of £80 million between 2010 and 2015, with subsequent ‘investments’ in services remaining unringfenced and therefore often ‘lost in transit’.

On the ground, thresholds to ‘qualify’ for ever-more thinly-spread therapy appointments and other specialist services are becoming ever-higher. An incident of self-harm, panic attacks, or ‘low level’ eating disorders are no longer considered sufficiently severe. Waiting lists are anything between six months and two years in length. Police and emergency services are having to deal with children experiencing psychological crisis. Young people are being placed in the only available inpatient care, hundreds of miles away from home.

This is happening in Britain, a developed country with the sixth largest economy in the world. An economy which, the government recently boasted, is now finally stable after almost a decade of austerity measures. But at what true cost?

Teacher stress

The real cost can be measured in no small part by the suffering of the teaching profession. Where the NHS and social services could no longer meet the needs of young people, teachers were expected to pick up the slack. After eight years of working longer and longer hours whilst trying to ensure the mental wellbeing of pupils and juggling huge volumes of paperwork the mental health of teachers has begun to suffer, too. A 2017 study by the BBC found 70% teachers have taken time off in the past year for a physical or mental health problem they attribute directly to the stress of their job.

In the midst of an epic recruitment and retention crisis, those who have the liberty to speak openly about these issues are accused of ‘talking the profession down’. If teachers dare to use the word ‘no’ media narratives conspire to paint them as uncaring and unconcerned for the children in their charge.

The goodwill of a profession disproportionately populated by people who are motivated to make a difference continues to be taken advantage of. Another hour of overtime. Another weekend sacrificed. Another blow to the dream of having anything resembling a work/life balance.

Schools and teachers do have a role to play in the mental health of pupils and they can have the greatest impact if they are allowed to do what they should be doing. Giving one-to-one attention to pupils, inspiring thirst for knowledge, imparting life skills, having time to form genuine and meaningful connections in the classroom, being a role model and mentor: you know, teaching!

Learning for learning’s sake

I know this from first hand experience. I began having panic attacks in 1991, when I was ten years old. I was lucky enough to go on to attend a secondary school where, I now realise, all of my psychological needs were met. This gave me that most coveted of all traits: resilience.

We had small-ish class sizes for a state school, we did PE three times per week, we were supported to do a whole range of extra-curricular activities, encouraged to express ourselves through art and music and our teachers could always make time for a chat. The school library was always open and welcoming, the staffroom door always slightly ajar. Furthermore, I never once remember the motivation for learning being whether or not something was ‘on the exam’. We learned for learning’s sake, and the love of learning my teachers inspired in me still gives me respite from anxious thoughts today. 

I cannot thank my teachers enough for giving me my education – it has enhanced the quality of my life in a way that no amount of zeros on my pay packet ever could.

A safe space

School represented a safe space for me, just by being a place where I was free to learn in a variety of ways. In contrast, today’s state school educated children have an average of one hour of PE per week, significantly diminished time for subjects we know have a therapeutic value like music and drama and are encouraged by the system itself to believe that the sum of their value lies in their exam performance.

To the Department of Education, to the people who think ‘lazy’ teachers have nothing better to do with their time than play therapist, to the Gove-o-philes who celebrate increased ‘academic rigor’ and exam-factory style learning, to Theresa May herself: I see you.

 

"A Beginner's Guide to Being Mental: An A-Z from Anxiety to Zero F**ks Given" is published by Bluebird Books on Thursday 17th May. ​

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Blog
15 May 2018