Neuro-psychiatrist Dr Thomas Dannhauser explains the mental health issues pupils are facing today, the challenges for schools in identifying those at risk, and how technology is both making mental health worse, but could also offer a solution…
Children today face a number of new issues when it comes to their mental health and wellbeing and, unfortunately, we are currently seeing the impact of this. According to Young Minds, one in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental health problem in 2021, a huge increase from one in nine in 2017. And, at the most serious end of the scale, teen suicide has increased significantly over the past decade, and it is estimated that one in fourteen children has attempted to end their life by the age of 171.
Problems amongst children are being worsened or caused as a result of their modern, digital-native, online lives. There are a lot more risks for kids today than was the case with previous generations. Children with ADHD, for example, are more likely to become addicted to gaming. Overuse of social media and gaming can cause depression, and depressed children can find information online on how to self-harm.
And there is online abuse – today there is so much more machinery and tools for children to be bullied. And bullying is still one of the major causes of anxiety conditions in later life.
ADHD, OCD and bullying
Many conditions first emerge in schools – ADHD, the most common serious mental health problem in children, almost always does and affects an estimated 6.7% of the UK population. Likewise, OCD often starts in secondary school. Up to 35% of pupils experience bullying in school, which in turn leads to mental health problems in 20% of victims, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am a neuro-psychiatrist and work with many people who are at college or have recently left school. In most cases, these people are living with conditions that were simply not picked up during their school years.
We typically see a lot of young adults identified as having mental health or wellbeing issues in their first year of university, work, or living away from home
By the time their issues are identified and addressed, they are young adults – and their problems can be far worse than if they had been addressed sooner. We typically see a lot of young adults identified as having mental health or wellbeing issues in their first year of university, work, or living away from home – this is because they have, for the first time, lost the support network they had, which helped them cope.
Changes in routines reveal all the propping up the previous routines had done for them. School life is, of course, all about routine. It’s therefore not surprising that so many can fly under the radar.
The role schools can play
This shows what an important role teachers, school leaders and mental health leads at schools can play as, if high risk and symptomatic pupils can be identified sooner, they can then be diagnosed and helped earlier, and be better prepared for their life as young adults.
In the world of mental health care, we use a very similar process to what is used in the engineering world: detect, measure, control. First you need to detect the issue, then measure it, and finally get it under control. Schools, at the least, need to play an active role in detecting struggling or high-risk children.
… if high risk and symptomatic pupils can be identified sooner, they can then be diagnosed and helped earlier, and be better prepared for their life as young adults
However, schools simply are not given the tools they need. Take ADHD, for example. Identifying ADHD requires expert skills – you can’t expect teachers to pick it up through intuition. And, in general, it can be more difficult to assess and diagnose children.
Earlier I mentioned the negative impact some forms of technology are having on children today. However, I also believe that technology could be key to the solution and an ally for teachers and schools, when it comes to improving the psychological health and safeguarding of children.
Govox, the mental health and suicide prevention platform, recently announced that it is offering its product to 1,000 state secondary schools in the UK, completely free of charge. The company is aiming to get it implemented in as many schools as possible for the start of the next academic year, and there are still hundreds of places available on the programme.
It is vital that a programme such as this is properly developed. Govox is the result of collaboration between experts including King’s College London, NHSx and clinicians like me. The schools programme has also been backed by current chancellor and former education secretary Nadhim Zahawi MP. It is being delivered with the support of suicide prevention charity The Jordan Legacy, the Mental Health Foundation and Local Mind, ensuring students are signposted to effective support, even if the school or NHS is not immediately able to offer it.
For schools this is good news – it can help them to detect and measure the issues individual children are facing and means schools can take a more active role in the psychological safeguarding of their pupils.
Pupils who use Govox complete simple ‘check ins’ – on a computer, phone or tablet – where, each month, they answer a set of short questions that analyse their overall mental health, providing a ‘wellbeing score’ and flagging any concerning findings, in particular highlighting any ‘high risk’ pupils. The Schools Programme is specifically aimed at getting the platform into state schools who simply don’t have any stretch in their budgets.
The wider issue
There is a wider issue brewing that needs to be addressed by the government. The NHS and CAMS (the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) are already overstretched when it comes to treating young people with mental health problems. The threshold for support from CAMs has increased. This all points to students facing a larger ‘danger zone’, getting stuck between the support a school can offer and the support the NHS can.
I am currently seeing a 17-year-old school girl who is in a crisis situation – quite literally an emergency – but she is not able to get any immediate support from the NHS, not even a diagnosis. Earlier diagnosis could have made her condition more manageable. And this is why I believe schools need to do all they can to identify those struggling early on – because if they do not, it will get worse, manifest in a serious way in their early adult years, and they may find that the help they need is not easily available.
Having a database of data points of how a child is feeling and how they are performing, such as Govox offers, can enable an assessment to be done more accurately and faster. I can’t tell you how useful it would be to me to have years’ worth of month-by-month data on my patients’ mental wellbeing at school. One of the first questions I always ask patients is, ‘What were you like at school?’; What support did you have?’. Having the data collected before I even see the patient, and knowing I have an accurate account, would be a game-changer.
This is why I would encourage school leaders to sign up to Govox’s Schools Programme, which they can do at www.govox.com/schools-partnership. Teachers need all the tools they can get in this area. It will help schools identify those who are having issues, so they can get the support they need. It will help guard against things getting worse. And, ultimately, it could help save lives.
Dr Thomas Dannhauser is a consultant psychiatrist, neuroscientist and expert in teens and young adults.
According to ONS data 110 teens aged 15-19 committed suicide in 2010 compared to 160 in 2020 which equates to a 45% increase. Further demonstrating the increase over the decade, the average suicide rate for this age group between 2020-2015 was 177 compared to 133 between 2010-2014.
You might also be interested in: A 45% rise in teen suicide prompts launch of health & wellbeing platform