Mental health provision for young people in the UK is being stretched. A 2019 study by the Education Policy Institute found that 26% of referrals to specialist young people’s mental health services were rejected – and this figure may increase; The Independent recently reported NHS Digital findings that, in 2020 and 2021, one in six children aged six to 16 reported a mental health disorder, up from one in nine in 2017. As a peer research trainee, I have spoken to young people seeking support in secondary schools. Some say they are suffering long waiting times and even rejection.
‘My experience has felt radical’
I have experienced this firsthand. When I was 14, I suffered a mental health crisis and sought support from both my school and my GP. Some 13 months later, I was contacted by my school’s support service to ask if I was still interested. Luckily, I had been referred to NHS services by my GP within a month of my first appointment – but, according to that Education Policy Institute study, ‘26% of referrals to specialist children’s mental health services were rejected in 2018-2019. This amounts to approximately 133,000 children and young people’. In other words, one in four young people enduring a breakdown did not receive the kind of intervention that proved life-changing for me.
I see empowering young people in social action as crucial in addressing this issue. My experience as a peer researcher has felt radical. I remember, in my recruitment interview, describing young people as fiery, passionate and opinioned, and often articulate too. What we lack are the connections, prestige and wisdom to make an impact in circles of power. This is what the opportunity to work with a venerated organisation has meant to me; I’m seeing young peoples’ passion finally being invested in. We are getting the support to translate this into evidence, and then into action.
This perspective relates to young people’s experiences with mental health. After completing the research training programme offered by The Young Foundation, the peer research team and I began our fieldwork. In one particularly poignant interview, a young person told me they wouldn’t attempt to access mental health services at school, having previously been turned away.
Particularly considering the pressure the NHS is under, school-based counselling can be an effective solution to young people’s mental health crises. It’s often their preferred route too; according to research from The Children’s Society, more than two thirds of young people want to access mental health support without going through their GP.
Time for action
Cogs are turning in this direction, with the possibility of funding one trained mental health professional in all schools debated in parliament in November. The Department for Education (DfE) is currently offering a £1,200 grant for a senior member of school or college staff to access training to implement support in school. This can cover 30% of schools this financial year. The government’s current commitment is to offer this training to all eligible schools and colleges by 2025.
From my experiences and my research, I’d love to see this happen sooner. In a survey by Mind, 96% of participants said their mental health had affected their schoolwork at some point, with 48% stating they had been punished for behaviour they attributed to their mental health problems. We need that health expertise within schools, making support accessible for young people when they need it.