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Dealing with SEMH needs – what more can be done?

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Dealing with SEMH needs – what more can be done?

The world is not an easy place for young people at the moment. 

We’ve just come out of an unprecedented period of anxiety over Covid-19, with its lockdowns and changes in societal behaviour, and in the background is the possibility of an uninhabitable planet in the future due to climate change, as well as the threat of nuclear war.

That’s not forgetting worries closer to home, such as concerns surrounding the cost of living, caring responsibilities, academic expectations and social media led peer-pressure. 

Here, we look at what more can be done to support our young people with their social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs.

How big is the problem?

It’s estimated that there are around 150,000 young people dealing with SEMH issues at the moment. That’s 1 in 6 of our young people (aged from 6-16), and that figure has risen from 1 in 9 in 2017. The problem is particularly concerning among young women aged between 17 – 19 where it’s thought that 1 in 4 have a probable mental health condition.  

Most typically, young people are affected by anxiety and/or depression, as well as social phobias such as self-consciousness and insecurity.

These conditions present themselves in different ways in each individual, but can be generally characterised by some or all of the following: 

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Irritability

  • Sleep issues

  • Fatigue

  • Anxiety 

  • Loss of friendships 

  • Sadness

  • Restlessness

  • Weight gain/loss

  • Thoughts of death or suicide

As a result, teachers and support staff have seen a rise in behaviours such as self-harm, anger, withdrawal, frustration, verbal and physical aggression, and anti-social behaviour. 

The data suggest that if the SEMH needs of these young people are not met and addressed effectively, their life chances are impaired. They are more vulnerable to leaving school with no qualifications, be unemployed, to develop substance abuse problems, be caught in the criminal justice system, be victims of sexual abuse, or be homeless. Young people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds or ethnic minority households are most at risk of these outcomes.

What support is there currently?

The government suggests four early intervention strategies to identify and support young people with SEMH needs:

  1. Prevention

  2. Identification 

  3. Early support

  4. Access to specialist support

Following the Government’s 2017 Green Paper for Transforming children and young people’s mental health, a document was published entitled ‘Promoting children and young  people’s mental health and wellbeing: A whole school or college approach’, which outlined ‘8 principles of a whole school or college approach to promoting mental health and wellbeing’. 

In it, these eight principles were identified as:

  • An ethos and environment that promotes respect, and values diversity

  • Curriculum teaching and learning to promote resilience, and support social and emotional learning

  • Targeted support and appropriate referral 

  • Enabling student voices to influence decisions

  • Working with parents and carers

  • Staff development to support their own wellbeing and that of students

  • Identifying needs and monitoring impact of interventions

  • Leadership and management that supports and champions efforts to promote emotional health and wellbeing

Two main commitments were made: the establishment of Mental Health Support Teams in education settings, creating new Educational Mental Health Practitioners to act as a link between young people and Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS), and pilots to build consensus on an approach to defining and measuring waiting times. 

The government also committed £79 million for mental health support for children and young people in England, which is being used to expand the support available. 

Is enough being done?

Despite this initiative and its apparent importance to the government, the Children’s Commissioner notes in a 2021 report that services are still nowhere near meeting the level of need and hundreds of thousands of children are being left without help as a result. 

Anne Longfield CBE, the author of the report and the previous Children’s Commissioner, noted the situation was exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19 which disrupted education, limited opportunities, and added to the strain on young people’s mental health. This resulted in a 50% rise in clinically significant mental health conditions compared to three years earlier. 

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) also notes that only a quarter of the children who needed treatment received it, and that those who did get access to a service had to wait weeks or months for treatment, with only 20% of children starting treatment within four weeks. 

The BMJ also highlights the lack of funds available to provide the support needed, noting that local commissioning groups spend less than 1% of their budget on children’s mental health services, 14 times less than on adult services. 

What can be done?

Clearly the demand is greater than the need, and anyone who has tried to access children’s mental health support services, despite the exemplary work being done in schools, recognises that children are being let down. 

There is no doubt that children’s mental health services are expanding, but many professionals fear that the growth is too slow to deal with what’s being called an epidemic of mental health conditions in our young people, and some receive little or no support. 

The answer, like many of the problems in our society, is greater targeted funding. However, given the spending constraints currently in place due to a variety of factors, it is debatable whether things will improve significantly in the near future. 

Meanwhile, teachers and school support staff will continue to go above and beyond to offer support to those young people who need it most. 

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