It’s well known that mental health is a significant issue for young people. Recent research suggests that at least 10% children and young people between the ages of five and 16 in the UK experience a problem such as anxiety and depression. If left untreated these problems can spiral and lead to issues such as drug abuse, suicide attempts and criminality in adolescence and adulthood.
But what if primary school children were offered counselling as a matter of course? Early intervention would not only reduce mental health problems down the line but also reduce the cost to the public purse.
It is estimated that by adolescence 30 to 40% of young people have at least one mental health disorder. In adulthood, one in four people face mental health difficulties. The psycho-social and financial consequences of untreated mental health problems are profound.
What it costs
Approximately 70m days are lost from work each year as a result of mental ill health in the UK and the health and social care costs are huge. Direct costs of mental health in England are now around £22.5 billion a year – that includes spending in health and social care and a variety of other agencies, but not the indirect costs of the impact on the criminal justice system and in lost employment. Effective prevention and early intervention are therefore of paramount importance.
The benefits of school-based psycho-social interventions for children have also been well documented. It is during childhood that interventions can be most effective, as children’s brains are susceptible to structural and functional changes in response to both positive and negative environmental stimuli. In other words, a child’s brain is “a work in progress”.
Evidence is accumulating from studies showing that not only does early intervention help the brain to achieve its potential but it also allows it to develop well beyond this potential. Along the same line of reasoning, other studies have also shown that there are “sensitive periods” in early childhood when the brain develops fast in response to environmental stimuli – such as positive or negative interactions with significant others. Childhood is therefore the age when interventions can be most successful in ensuring long-term gains.
How can children benefit?
Counselling offered at school has a number of benefits. The first and most obvious one is that of accessibility. Children are more likely to see a counsellor or therapist when at school, and families find this more acceptable and less stigmatising. Very often, the school counsellor is a person the children feel familiar with as a member of the school community – so it is easier for them to seek their help in times of difficulty.
With the help of counselling, children can learn how to build secure and healthy relationships. In many circumstances, the counselling relationship can function as a corrective experience for abusive or problematic past relationships and as a secure base for exploration and experimentation.
Negative messages (such as “you’re worthless” or “you’re a failure”) from the past that impact upon the child’s sense of self-worth can be corrected and substituted by messages that enhance self-esteem and foster resilience. At a more practical level, children become equipped with a set of emotional and cognitive coping skills that will allow them to overcome adversity in the future.
Children also learn how to deal with challenging behaviours. For example, they can learn how to use meditation and music to relax and deal with difficult emotions instead of turning to things such as drugs or alcohol. Evidence shows that children who undergo the process of counselling grow and gain confidence as the spiral of positive changes begin.
The economic forecast
So can primary school mental health counselling help the economy? The answer is yes – but the only definitive way to answer this question would be by means of evidence from longitudinal studies that would follow up with children who received counselling while in primary school.
In the lack of such evidence, conclusions can only be based on findings that show the immediate benefits of counselling and psychotherapy in childhood. Undoubtedly, when you equip children with the right tools to deal with hardship effectively, it follows that they will rely less on dysfunctional behaviours such as delinquency, truancy and absenteeism and as a result will burden public services less.
The timely detection of mental health problems and early intervention are imperative to enhance the quality of life for children and minimise the future costs of mental health care. Or as the African-American orator and writer Frederick Douglass once put it: “It is easier to build strong children than to fix broken men.”