Children’s mental health investigation: Banburyshire schools fight soaring crisis

Photo: NSPCC/ Jon Challicom. Posed by model
Photo: NSPCC/ Jon Challicom. Posed by model

In the first part of a special Banbury Guardian investigation into children’s mental health, head teachers share their experiences of the growing crisis among young people.

Schools in Banburyshire are struggling with huge rises in mental health problems among children.

Anxiety and depression, self-harm and drug taking are cited as frequent problems ruining young people’s schooling and happiness.

Heads say exam pressure, social media and poverty contribute to the stress while access to mental health services is shrinking because of cuts.

Sylvia Thomas, principal of Banbury Academy, said: “Access to services is dire due to a lack of capacity.

“The workers we engage with in Banbury are fantastic and I have nothing but praise for them. However, they have only so many hours in the day and are stretched beyond in terms of numbers of cases.”

Ms Thomas said reasons for the rise in mental health issues among the young range from misuse and abuse of social media to the impact of Universal Credit, to ‘increased and pervasive’ drug use among older teenagers.

“Budget cuts in schools have meant though that support staff are being reduced in every school and class sizes increasing. I worry about the current generation and have voiced this to whoever will listen to me,” she said.

Jane Cartwright, head of Chenderit School, said students are encouraged to speak to staff about concerns and many do, but no one can tell how many may suffer in silence.

“We don’t know whether there are students who don’t feel able to speak about such issues,” she said.

New largely examination-based GCSE and A-level courses are adding to teenagers’ problems.

“It is fair to say some have coped better with the new demands than others. There are, of course, many other issues young people have to negotiate nowadays that may account for the alarming rise in mental health referrals.”

Ms Cartwright said pupils are referred as necessary to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service for problems such as anxiety, self-harm and possible autistic spectrum disorder but waiting times are long.

“To access DBT (dialectical behaviour therapy), for example, there is a wait of approximately one year. An initial assessment can sometimes take three to four months which is also concerning,” she said.

“CAMHS is an invaluable service however our students and their families would most certainly benefit from a shorter wait time.”

Emma Blane at North Oxon Academy said: “We have seen an increase in students presenting with mental health needs. Students are encouraged to, and do, report concerns for themselves and their peers to staff.

“Whilst the work CAMHS does is invaluable, we are increasingly looking for alternative support for young people, inside and outside school due to lengthy waiting times.

“Our school health nurse has been fantastic in supporting students and staff where concerns regarding mental health are present.

“Invariably, we aim to adopt a multi-agency approach towards children and families, as frequently mental health needs do not stand alone.

“Children and adults are more aware and knowledgeable regarding the subject so it no longer holds the taboo of the past but undoubtedly, cuts to children’s services mean schools are often the only service children and families are engaging with as a result of limited universal support within the community.”

The NSPCC, which runs Childline, revealed this month that referrals to Oxford Health NHS Trust, which manages mental health services, rose from 1578 in 2016-17 to 2257 in 2017-18. 218 of those were refused treatment as uneligible.

The government has announced £300m extra for child mental health and the NSPCC is calling for some to be directed at vountary services such as Childline which can help children deemed ineligible for official treatment.

Children may call Childline on 0800 1111 (free for all calls which do not show up on any bills). It also has a one-to-one instant chat line with a counsellor at www.childline.org.uk.

In a statement Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust said: “At present, all referrals received in Oxfordshire CAMHS are triaged for appropriateness and, if accepted, an initial assessment is offered to examine their needs and set out a clear treatment plan.

“Where it’s felt a young person’s needs are high and they require urgent follow-up care, this is prioritised and those individuals are seen within seven days.

“For emergency cases where a young person is in crisis we aim to see them within 24 hours.

“In cases where the urgency for follow-up care is not as high, we offer advice and strategies designed to help the young person and their families to better manage their mental health. We may, dependant on need, also link young people and families with our partners who may be better able to meet their needs.

“The wait from assessment to treatment commencing is dependent on the individual needs of the young person and intervention required.”

The Banbury Guardian’s investigation continues in Thursday’s paper.