THE POLITICS COLUMN – Liberal Democrat County Councillor Rebecca Hanson writes for this week’s Whitehaven News Politics Column
Published 30th January 2019.
Recent media reports of an adolescent mental health crisis in Cumbria clearly only scratch the surface of the problems our young people are experiencing.
In November 2018 research showed that around one fifth of girls and one tenth of boys aged 17 to 19 have self-harmed or attempted suicide. From my conversations in education and health I suspect that the figures in West Cumbria are significantly worse than this. Even if we only match the national average, we will see around 200 more children each year developing these very serious symptoms of poor mental health.
Liberal Democrats have successfully campaigned in recent years for a higher profile and more funding for mental health services. Very substantial efforts are being made to strengthen and improve CAMHS (the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service), including partnerships with larger regional services and efforts to ensure emotional support for young people is more widely available in the community, but there is a huge national shortage of suitably qualified professionals and there are no easy answers.
Why is this epidemic happening? Some blame social media, and there is certainly work to be done to improve the experiences children have when they explore their feelings of despair online. But I suspect that one key cause is the fundamental transformation in secondary education which has taken place over the last 20 years.
When I started teaching, teachers in West Cumbria secondary schools were recruited for their pastoral as well as their teaching skills. They built strong relationships of trust with school teenagers during extended pastoral activities. It was normal for there to be times in some lessons where children chatted freely and informally. In this environment, children would discuss their concerns about what was going on in their lives, allowing experienced teachers with strong local contacts to contribute helpful comment or take further action.
After 20 years of active discouragement of teachers who don’t stick to formal lesson plans and who focus only on the transmission of academic knowledge, all this is a distant memory. Children’s difficulties may now escalate until they have to be taken out of lessons for treatment or counselling.
In Finland, substantial efforts have been made to preserve a culture in education where both students and teachers have substantial freedom to decide what goes on in their classrooms. A 2018 report showed no increase in the frequency of their adolescent mental health issues.
The Liberal Democrats call for an evidence-based education policy that is developed with and by professionals working on the front line. Substantial additional resources must be provided in schools, accessible without delay, to provide mental health support as soon as possible.