Eighty-one per cent of those in secondary schools reported that pupils are self-harming as a result of pressures they face.
The NEU surveyed 730 education staff working in early years, primary, secondary, sixth-form colleges and FE colleges and found, overall, that more than half (56%) of pupils’ mental health issues are leading to self-harm, 45% reported pupils having eating disorders, and 48% said pupils were having panic attacks.
One respondent from West Sussex said: “I have several students who were high achievers at GCSE and who are virtually unable to sit in a lesson and concentrate due to severe stress. I have at least one student who has attempted suicide and others with a variety of mental health issues.”
Another from Derbyshire reported: “Mental health and well-being of our pupils is the most significant barrier to learning that I have experienced as a teacher.”
Largely, mental health issues are on the rise with almost seven-in-ten (68%) respondents saying they believe their school or college is having to deal with more pupil mental health issues than five years ago, and a third (34%) saying they are dealing with significantly more than one year ago.
A member from Kent told us: “I continuously have students break down in class and cry due to the academic pressure of the new specifications. As not all students are academic, many have become very withdrawn and disillusioned with education.”
According to 82% of respondents, tests and exams have the biggest impact on the mental health of pupils. Sixty-seven per cent said they feel it is due to pressure from schools to do well; 50% said it was due to a narrowing of the curriculum, and 48% said it was due to the pressure they put on themselves to do well academically.
One respondent from Sussex said: “There is a massive conflict between the offering up of mental health support and the ongoing drive towards more testing at every level at school. Students' self-esteem is inevitably wrapped up with their perceived and actual performance. There is an irony in 'helping' students with mental health issues when the present education system is triggering much ill health.”
Another member from Buckinghamshire told us: “In my opinion, pressure to meet the so-called ‘expected standard’ is too great; some pupils will get there but are not ready in their year group and this constant feeling of not being good enough chips away at self-esteem. The enjoyment and love of learning is being stripped away, particularly for boys.”
And a member from Surrey echoed those views saying: “We feel like we have reached crisis point at our school with so many anxious and unhappy pupils. The problems in society and with over testing and a more demanding curriculum need to be addressed in addition to providing more mental health support.”
The results of the anonymous survey also showed that schools and colleges are having to do more and more to support very vulnerable pupils, but are ill-equipped to do so.
Lack of funding was cited by respondents as the main barrier to supporting pupils with mental health conditions in their school or college, selected by 77% of respondents. This was closely followed by length of time to get specialist help (75%).
When questioned about access to support services, such as child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), 65% said their school or college finds it more difficult to access them compared to a year ago.
One member from Hillingdon said: “I am concerned that the Government is just providing lip service to mental health issues and will not fund any initiatives properly. Access to CAMHS is very limited.”
More than half (54%) said they believe funding to provide support for pupils’ mental health is inadequate.
Another respondent from Hertfordshire said: “We have seen a significant increase in mental health issues with a decrease in support and funding. School is at breaking point and we cannot provide the level of support we want to as we have so much need but not enough staff or money to pay and train additional staff to support these very vulnerable children.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU said: “It is shocking that so many children are suffering from mental health issues to the point of contemplating suicide or self-harming. The Government must bear some responsibility for the huge amount of stress so many children are under, and for the hollowing out of crucial local support services. This has placed an unacceptable strain on education professionals who have to pick up with the pieces when these vulnerable children hit crisis.
“The constant pressure for pupils to reach impossible standards, and the constant tinkering with the curriculum, leaves them feeling demoralised and disillusioned by education. This is no way to encourage more children to do well at school or college.
“The Government must also bear responsibility for the problems schools and colleges have accessing services, such as CAMHS, which have been hit by funding cuts. The proposals in the Government’s mental health green paper are too little too late to have a meaningful impact on the current situation.”