Mental health crisis surging in UK schools

Troubled: The number of children younger than 11 seeking psychological help rose to almost 19,000.

What is to blame? Today is World Mental Health Day and this year’s theme is “young people in a changing world”. In the UK, there has been a surge in the number of schoolchildren seeking help.

Every day, 183 schoolchildren in England are referred to the NHS for mental health issues in what is seen as a growing crisis afflicting young people nationwide.

In total, 34,757 referrals were made to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) in 2017-18 — a rise of 38% over four years.

Younger students are particularly affected, with 55% of all referrals coming from primary schools. In some cases, children as young three were sent for psychological help.

The figures were attained by children’s charity NSPCC. Chief executive Peter Wanless states that “schools are increasingly referring children for specialist mental health treatment, often when the child is at crisis point”.

And in some cases, sufferers do not get the support they need.

“I suffer with anxiety and panic attacks and find it difficult to leave the house,” one teenager told Childline. “I was referred to CAMHS but I was on a waiting list for eight months and during that time my anxiety got worse, so I never went because I was too scared.”

Indeed, the figures show that in almost a third of referrals, children were denied specialist treatment.

Earlier this year, Barnardo’s chief Javed Khan warned that resources were stretched so thin in some areas that children would only be treated following severe self-harm or suicide attempts.

In December, MPs announced plans to reform mental health provision for children, including shorter waiting lists for specialist care and better support within schools.

One survey estimates that at least 10% of young people (aged 5-16) suffer from some form of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm.

Such a broad problem requires a thorough diagnosis. NSPCC policy officer Alana Ryan said the vulnerable children the charity meets often cite “exam pressures, social media and not being able to get into specialist services”.

What is to blame for this mental health crisis?

Breaking point

Blame inadequate institutions, some argue. Health care provision for those suffering is woeful, with vulnerable children waiting months for treatment or being turned away altogether. This spreads beyond the NHS too — cuts to school nurses deprive young people of care professionals working on the front line. Mental health services need more cash, fast.

There are societal factors too, others respond. Cyberbullying is endemic, with almost half of young people suffering abuse online. And social media is terrible for supercharging stress, anxiety and depression. Add to this a culture of high-pressure exams in schools and it’s no wonder children are becoming ill. Reforming how we learn and socialise will bring the most change.

You Decide

  1. Is too much pressure put on young people?
  2. Is mental illness the biggest health problem facing modern society?


  1. Consider the phrase “mental illness”. Write down all the words you associate with it. Discuss your list with the class. What are the most common words that come up? Why? What does this show about our attitudes to the problem?
  2. Watch the three videos under Become An Expert — all of them explore different ways of responding to mental illness. Devise a list of three key pieces of advice you would give to a young person suffering from mental health problems.

Some People Say...

“Mental health needs a great deal of attention. It’s the final taboo and it needs to be faced and dealt with.”

Adam Ant

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The NSPCC data is based on information received from 53 NHS trusts. In total, 123,713 mental health referrals have been made by schools since 2014. In 2017-18, 18,870 children under the age of 11 were referred for specialist psychological support. This was an increase of 5,183 on the number referred in 2014-15.
What do we not know?
We do not know how much the rise is due to increasing instances of mental illness, or an increasing awareness among teachers who are then able to successfully identify those suffering symptoms. Social media, exam pressure and limited access to services have all been cited as contributing factors, but no single cause can be definitively stated.

Word Watch

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Anxiety can manifest itself in different ways and to varying degrees, but generally it involves having uncontrollable worries about things in your everyday life.
Panic attacks
The sudden onset of intense fear or worry, often accompanied by sweating, shaking, breathlessness and feelings of dread.
A free 24/7 telephone advice service for young people. You can reach them on 0800 1111.
In some of these cases treatment may not have been necessary or appropriate. However, the NSPCC believes under-resourcing is also a factor.
Charity founded in 1866 by Thomas John Barnardo to care for vulnerable children and young people.
Carried out by the UK’s Office for National Statistics.
The BBC reported a fall in the number of school nurses in England from 3,000 to 2,500 between 2010 and 2017.

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