More West Sussex school children experiencing mental health issues

A West Sussex councillor has warned that mental health issues identified among schoolchildren is potentially ‘the tip of an iceberg’.

During a county council scrutiny meeting, another councillor reported that mental health had ‘quite often’ become the reason given for a child not attending school.

The issue was raised during a Children & Young People’s Services Scrutiny Committee discussion about the school attendance and attainment of youngsters during the pandemic.

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Alison Cornell (Lab, Langley Green & Ifield East) told the meeting that she had spoken to a number of headteachers.

Schools have been badly affected by the pandemic

She said: “It is hard to over-state the priority both primary and secondary headteachers are placing on mental health support within their schools.

“Amongst the schools I visited, one had assessed the increase in pupils self-identifying as having a mental health problem as over 300 per cent.

Others talked about five-fold increases of pupils exhibiting problems [that were] being identified by teachers.

“Everyone recognises that there will be pupils who are struggling and have not been identified, so this will be the tip of potentially an iceberg.

“It is a huge problem for them.”

In September, a survey by NHS Digital found one in six children in England had a probable mental disorder in 2021 – up from one in nine in 2017 – with girls more affected than boys.

And a report to the meeting said that a survey carried out by Ofsted – called Covid 19: Briefing on Schools – indicated that children who were hardest hit by school closures and restrictions had regressed in some basic skills and learning.

It added: “[Ofsted] suggested that some older children had lost stamina in their reading and writing along with physical fitness, whilst others were showing signs of mental distress including an increase in eating disorders and self-harm.”

Dawn Smith (Lab, Broadwater) told the meeting that some of the headteachers she had spoken to cited mental health as an issue when it came to how well some children were doing at school.

And she pointed out that, while many schools had counsellors and mental health first aiders, there was only so much they could do to help.

Paul Wagstaff, director of education and skills said: “The issue of mental health and wellbeing without a doubt is something we need to recognise is a big issue.”

Mr Wagstaff acknowledged that students faced certainly anxieties such as not knowing how well they would do in exams because of the delays caused by Covid, as well as trying to re-establish friendships and hierarchies which may have fallen aside during the pandemic.

He added: “It will have a big impact and anxiety on children.

“Our schools have been very supportive in working with children and young people to try to help them overcome some of those issues.

“As a local authority we have provided health and wellbeing training as a programme for all of our schools [and] we’ve provided the mental health first aider training.”

Schools and pupils can also ask for help via the council’s Mental Health Support Teams in Schools.

Using cognitive behavioural therapy, they offer short-term – usually 4-10 sessions – goal-based interventions for children and young people.

A brief introduction to the service can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dr6vCSKkfKc.