Mental health takeover: What can be done as mental health issues in our schools rise?

Neatherd deputy head Nick O'Brien. Picture: Ian Burt

Neatherd deputy head Nick O'Brien. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

It's no secret that schools budgets are tight - and that extra support is dwindling. Lauren Cope looks at how our schools and colleges are working with what they have to make sure pupils' mental health remains a priority.

Children in a classroom. Picture: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Children in a classroom. Picture: Dave Thompson/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Schools and colleges are caught in a perfect storm of falling funds, creeping costs and mounting pressure to get those all-important grades.

It's seen many come under fire for narrowing their focus - looking at exams, Ofsted and core subjects, and letting everything else slip.

While it's an accusation most headteachers would deny, many would be likely to admit the lack of funding does make things difficult.

Mental health has repeatedly been raised as an area of concern, and - amid a 'dramatic' rise in problems - parents, pupils and school leaders in our region have called for more cash and better provision.

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But, in the meantime, plenty of schools and colleges are doing more with less, stretching their pennies to make mental health a priority.

David Day, senior director at Sewell Park Academy, said new measures had been introduced at the school to deal with a rise in need.

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He said: 'We have seen quite a dramatic increase in the number of cases of mental health problems with students, both boys and girls, over the last year.

'We've been dealing with those in school and one of the biggest issues has been the lack of capacity for referring pupils on, and also the time scales that go with that.'

Stuart Rimmer, East Coast College CEO and principal

Stuart Rimmer, East Coast College CEO and principal - Credit: East Coast College

He said the school now dedicated a staff training day to mental health at the start of the year and funded a counsellor to work with struggling pupils.

But he said the school's 'superb' support staff were its strength, with its pastoral and raising achievement team a real success story. He said it enabled pupils with difficulties to learn flexibly, and had resulted in a number of in-year transfers to the school.

Elsewhere, 28 students at Cromer Academy are now training to become mental health ambassadors as part of a YMCA Norfolk drive.

The ambassadors will give support, mentoring and buddying to students who suffer from mental health problems, working with another 12 who have recently become anti-bullying ambassadors.

MORE: What price do we have to pay? Call to arms to secure better mental health help for pupils as problems soar

Many schools are thinking outside of the box - Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form, in Norwich, is one of those which has employed the help of a Pets as Therapy dog for anxious students.

The sixth form, which last December won an award for how it looks after the emotional wellbeing of pupils, said Lionel had been particularly helpful around the stress of exam time.

Wymondham High Academy has appointed a new wellbeing officer to join its full-time counsellor in a bid to manage the increase in the number of pupils requiring support.

Headteacher Jonathan Rockey said the school, which runs daily group support sessions, would also be working towards earning its Wellbeing Charter Mark from September, with schools playing a 'pivotal' role in building children's resilience.

While good mental health support is vital in schools, it has been identified as a key issue in post-16 education.

In February, Stuart Rimmer, principal at East Coast College, revealed a 156pc rise in referrals to mental health services for pupils at the college in just one year.

The college has put a focus on its mental health provision, and Mr Rimmer has said, while shocking, the figures do also reflect a better understanding of mental health.

Meanwhile, City College Norwich has its own wellbeing team, which, formally set up three years ago, offers a variety of schemes and support from a team of counsellors and wellbeing advisors.

Jock Downie, who leads the team, said: 'When students come to us at 16, sometimes schools haven't been able to identify problems or those problems are only really starting to emerge. We've particularly seen a big rise in anxiety and depression and we've seen the debilitating impact of that.'

The team's initiatives include encouraging students to play college musical instruments, which they say has a relaxing and positive impact on anxiety, as well as work with the Mancroft Advice Project (MAP) on a summer holiday scheme, intended to make sure students with mental health problems return after the break.

'Sometimes that long break isn't good for students who may not have the confidence to go out and enjoy the summer,' he said. 'We give them summer projects and support, and it's been a real success.'

• For more from the EDP's special mental health takeover edition, click here.

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