‘Mental health first aid training’ in schools is a sticking-plaster solution

School children today face a huge amount of pressure. smolaw/Shutterstock

The UK government is making £200,000 available for “mental health first aid” training in secondary schools, according to a statement released by the prime minister’s office. The teachers who will receive training under this new programme “will receive practical advice on how to deal with issues such as depression and anxiety, suicide and psychosis, self-harm, and eating disorders”.

Mental health problems affect about one in ten young people in the UK. Schools have been heavily criticised for failing to recognise and deal with mental health issues, so, on first glance, the new initiative seems sound. But is it sound?

The government has commissioned a company called MFA England to deliver mental health first aid training to 1,000 secondary school teachers in the first year of a three-year programme. This works out at just £200 per member of staff. This may not be a enough to cover the costs of the two-day course, as costs – according to MFA England’s website – may vary depending on the location and instructor, with some charging up to £300 per person for the course.

Also, as there are more than 3,000 state-funded mainstream secondary schools in England, and the government aims to have all secondary schools trained by the third year of the programme, it’s safe to assume that only one person per school will receive the training. And with just two days training, the teacher will be expected to become a first aid champion, “sharing their knowledge and experiences across schools and communities to raise awareness and break down stigma and discrimination”. A big ask.

What happened to professional mental health services?

The announcement refers to “identifying and responding to early signs” of mental issues in children and coincides with a “major review of child and adolescent mental health services” and a focus on “strengthening links between schools and the National Health Service”. Yet, as many mental health charities have indicated, funding is one of the main barriers to putting in place professional mental health support for pupils. The government and clinical commissioning groups tasked with allocating and spending local child mental health funding often fail to account for how and where the money is spent.

In 2015, the government pledged an extra £1.4 billion over five years to “transform” child and adolescent mental health services. But in the first year of this extra funding (2015-16), nearly two-thirds (64%) of it was used to backfill cuts in other services; the same is true for half of the money allocated in 2016-17.

It’s more complicated than just spotting ‘signs’

A typical mental health first aid course includes a focus on signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, suicide, self-harm and eating disorders. But is a two-day course enough to cover the huge age and gender differences in how mental health is perceived by children and the subjective needs and experiences of individual children, as outlined in the Good Childhood Report?

For example, young people have identified bullying as playing a significant role in their mental health and well-being. There are suggestions that people who are often bullied during childhood are more than twice as likely to use mental health services during childhood or adolescence. As such schools need to take a closer look at how the school environment contributes to mental health and well-being problems.

It is easy to say you are going to train teachers to identify mental health problems, but young people are not always forthcoming in talking about their mental health, partly because it is not always clearly understood by young people themselves. And even when they do recognise that they have a mental health problem, three-quarters of young people say that there is a stigma attached to mental health issues, and a quarter would not ask for help if they were suffering.

Jeremy Hunt describes the scheme as a quiet revolution. Twocoms/Shutterstock

The mental health first aid course put the onus on the teachers to identify and recognise symptoms, as well as having the “confidence to reassure and support a young person in distress”. That is putting quite a lot of pressure on already overworked teachers. Nearly half of the 3,000 teachers aged under 35 surveyed by the National Union of Teachers said that they expected to leave the profession within the next five years, citing concerns about their own mental health as one of the reasons. So, in the final analysis, this initiative is once again taking responsibility away from the government and putting it on individuals who are expected to use “practical skills”, learned through a two-day mental health first aid course, to support vulnerable young people.

Of course, increasing mental health support and opening the debate about mental health in schools through this newly proposed government initiative can only help to reduce stigma. But this new announcement should have also included a stronger commitment from the government to invest in improving the wider factors that impact on mental health and well-being of both children and teachers.