In response to the growing mental health crisis, the government has launched a new training program to help teachers spot the early signs of mental illness among their students. As part of a £9.3 million Government scheme, one representative from every state school in the country will be offered a mental health training workshop to help “understand the difference” between clinical diagnosis and normal levels of stress. Last year, the Treasury announced that mental health funding will be increased from £12 billion to more than £14 billion within five years. Prime Minister Theresa May has said that the failings in the treatment of mental illnesses are one of the “burning injustices” she promised to fight when she arrived in Downing Street. However, with her premiership entering its final weeks, is it a case of too little too late?
There is no doubt that the mental health crisis has reached a state of national emergency. In a recent study published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, out of 14,000 UK students only 18% said they were happy, with just 17% saying their life was “worthwhile”. In an attempt to combat the growing problem of mental health at British universities, 66% of those surveyed said that universities should be able to warn parents if their children are at risk of a mental health crisis. This would increase support to those suffering from mental health illnesses, as well as increase the likelihood of finding proper treatment. Sir Anthony Seldon, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham said “the survey dispels the fiction that students don’t want their parents and guardians involved” and that having them included in the process “can only help, including help save lives”.
However, despite these recent developments, the root cause of the problem remains unclear. The Prime Minister has said: “It’s time to rethink how we tackle this issue, which is why I believe the next great revolution in mental health should be in prevention”. In addition to teacher training programs which include lessons in identifying children who might be suffering from mental health problems, the Prime Minister has also promised to change parts of the Mental Health Act, including by legislating against the use of police cells to detain people experiencing a mental health crisis. She hopes these changes will de-stigmatise the subject of mental health and give it the “urgent attention it deserves”.
The Prime Minister’s efforts have been met with a variety of different responses. Paul Farmer, the chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, has praised Theresa May for her commitment to the issue and has said: “It’s particularly positive to see such priority given to young people’s mental health”. However, the shadow secretary for mental health Barbara Keeley has said that the Prime Minister is “failing to address the real crisis”, and that her “warm words” do nothing to show the reality that support services for mental health are being “stretched to breaking point”. Whilst training for teachers and other professionals is “welcome”, the real problem lies in the fact that “thousands of children and young people are either turned away from mental health services or have to wait too long for treatment”.
There is clear evidence to suggest that the mental health crisis in the UK can be linked to the lack of provisional support and treatment for those suffering from mental illnesses. The Children’s Society reports that as many as 106,000 10-17 year-olds a year with mental health problems are being denied care because specialist NHS services in England judge them to be not ill enough to need it. In fact, only 79,000 out of the 185,000 who seek help get it, the study claims. In another survey, the charity found that almost one in three (32%) of parents of children aged 14-17 say their child has been affected by a mental health issue in the last year. The Prime Minister has said that “we should never accept the rise in mental health problems as inevitable”, but what can this issue ever be solved completely?
The Government’s decision to launch a new training scheme to help teachers spot the difference between stress and mental health issues is overall a positive one. The pilot, which ran in 1500 schools, showed that the training improved teachers’ ability to “understand the difference” between clinical diagnosis and normal levels of stress. The program is part of the NHS long-term plan to help achieve “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health services, providing teachers and other public sector professionals with the skills necessary to identify those in need of help. There are however several risks to running such a program, including the possibility of unnecessary referrals. According to the director of the Mental Health Foundation Dr. Antonis Kousoulis: “We don’t want to medicalise the everyday stresses or bumps in the road that all children face. Sometimes when we take a diagnostic approach we run the risk of that”. This argument is supported by Government advisor Tom Bennett, who has previously said that schools should not attempt to diagnose stressed children with mental health disorders. He says that “schools need to be careful not to overreach their expertise and try to do the job of trained experts in the mental health arena”. The danger of “amateur diagnoses” will only add to the stress on the NHS.
At the level of Higher Education, the problem of mental health is widespread. A recent poll of almost 38,000 students at 140 different universities across England, Wales and Scotland suggests rates of psychological distress and illness are on the rise at universities, with “alarmingly high” levels of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse and self-harm. Half of the students (50.3%) reported thoughts of self-harm, with one in three (33.9%) having experienced a serious psychological issue for which they felt they needed professional help. More than 4 out of 10 (44.7%) admitted to using drugs or alcohol to cope with their problems and almost 9 in 10 (87.7%) said they struggle with feelings of anxiety and depression. These numbers represent the darker side of university life, leading many to suffer from psychological distress.
So what will be the outcome of these recent developments in mental health? Should universities be allowed to contact parents in the case of a medical emergency? Should teachers and other public sector professionals be trained to spot the early signs of mental illness? The issue of mental health in the UK has reached a state of emergency. Therefore, any form of action should always be welcomed. There is no such thing as “too little, too late” in the case of mental health. It is an issue that involves all of us, and will continue to do so until we collectively find a solution.