More than a million children will be given access to mental health support in school as the NHS expands its services to help young people cope with the significant disruption caused by the pandemic.
Teams of experts are offering support to children experiencing anxiety and depression in a bid to prevent problems escalating into serious mental health issues that continue into adulthood.
NHS England says approximately 400 mental health support teams will be up and running across 3,000 schools in England and they will offer support to almost three million pupils by 2023.
The £79 million Government funding for children’s mental health services confirmed in March is being used to accelerate the rollout of mental health support teams in schools.
The funding is part of a £500 million package for mental health services across the board in England, which was unveiled in November as part of measures to recover from the coronavirus crisis.
Referrals to the mental health support teams – which offer children one-to-one and group therapy sessions, as well as training sessions for parents and workshops for school staff – can be made by teachers or GPs.
A study from NHS Digital shows that one in six children in England aged five to 16 reported having a probable mental health disorder in 2020, up from one in nine in 2017.
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS, said: “Coronavirus has taken its toll on us all, not least children who have been stuck at home unable to see their friends and without the routine of school life.
“So it’s an urgent necessity to expand services as we are doing, after what will have been for many a year of turmoil.
“Increasing investment in mental health services, particularly for children and young people, is a key part of the NHS Long Term Plan but we are now going even further and faster, because offering help and support early, before problems get worse, can sometimes prevent problems persisting into adulthood.”
There are currently 183 mental health support teams which are operational and ready to support more than a million school pupils in England.
The first 59 mental health support teams began work last March, but they had to swiftly adapt to provide help during lockdown.
In Essex, teams extended support to parents and carers confronted with home schooling as well as remote working, furlough or redundancy, using an online “befriending service”.
Parents were offered one-to-one therapy sessions, online parenting courses and given a buddy so they could have a support network to share advice with.
Meanwhile in Kent, teams provided 20-minute telephone counselling sessions for parents struggling with the competing demands of life under lockdown.
Claire Murdoch, mental health director for NHS England, said: “Children have had their normal routines turned upside down during the pandemic whether it be curbs on their social life, school or their hobbies, and so it is only right that the NHS accelerates its mental health support for young people.
“As children have returned to the classroom, dedicated NHS mental health support teams will be in place at 3,000 schools across the country ready to listen to any anxieties they may have and I would urge everyone whether you’re a teacher, parent or child to access this help before any issues escalate.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The pandemic has increased some young people’s needs just as it has slowed the limited progress that has been made on this important issue.
“There is an even greater sense of urgency for additional resources to support the mental health and wellbeing of pupils.
“It is essential to increase the capacity of social care, health and other services to meet the growing demand and to reduce waiting times.
“In order for schools to fulfil their primary role as educators, other sectors such as social care, CAMHS and healthcare need to be supported to fully step back into their own roles.”
Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “What the Government does now will shape these children’s lives and the future pressures on the NHS.
“If they get this wrong, the consequences could be disastrous.”