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Report calls for urgent action to boost children’s mental health support through schools

Posted on 26 April 2024

A new report sets out an evidence-based plan to improve the mental health of the one in five children in England with a probable mental health condition.

The report, by the research project Child of the North, the think tank Centre for Young Lives and involving a researcher from the University of York, calls for widening of Mental Health Support Teams to all schools, new "one-stop-shop" hubs for parents and children to find local support, and national roll out of local wellbeing surveys to track the mental health of school children.

The report highlights the scale of the mental health crisis among young people by revealing new preliminary data gathered from 5,000 children and young people in Bradford. The findings suggest one in five Year 9 pupils in the area have a probable eating disorder, and one in six 12-to-15-year-olds have self-harmed in the last 12 months, with a higher prevalence in girls (20%) compared to boys (13%).

The study also highlights problems with lack of sleep and loneliness as priority issues raised by children and young people in Bradford as detrimental to their mental health. 


The report calls on the Government to expand the mental health support offered through schools and educational settings from primary school onwards, without placing extra burdens on teachers. 

With children spending more time in school than in any other formal institutional structure, educational settings provide the ideal opportunity to reach large numbers of children simultaneously and can also facilitate intervention with pupils displaying early mental health or behavioural symptoms, the researchers say.

Step-up efforts

Dr Ruth Wadman, Research Fellow in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York and for the Age of Wonder Adolescent Mental Health Collaboratory, said: “Our children and young people need good mental health and wellbeing to develop and flourish. There is an urgent need to step-up our efforts to prevent mental health conditions and to intervene early when they emerge. The report shows that schools can play a key role in promoting good mental health and wellbeing, both by harnessing the power of data and by listening to children and young people.”

The report is the third in a series by Child of the North/Centre for Young Lives to be published during 2024, focusing on how both the Government and Opposition can reset their vision for children to put the life chances of young people at the heart of policy making and delivery.

Failing children

Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives, said: “At the next election, the parties will put forward their proposals for improving children’s mental health. Labour has already pledged to recruit more staff, introduce specialist mental health support for children in every school, and deliver an open access children and young people’s mental health hub for every community. But there should be a cross-party ambition to reduce the prevalence of children’s mental health conditions by half over the next 10 years, and all politicians should agree that the current system is failing too many children and needs urgent attention.”

The report comes amid a national epidemic of children’s mental health problems. In 2022, 18% of children aged 7-to-16-years-old and 22% of young people aged 17-to-24 had a probable mental health condition. 

Despite some extra investment in recent years, the children’s mental health system is blighted by chronic waiting lists and a postcode lottery of provision, and thousands of children and young people continue to struggle without support. Over 32,000 children had been waiting over two years for help at the end of 2022/3. 

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Expanding the mental health support offered through schools and educational settings, starting in the primary school years, to all schools. Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) are known to provide effective help to schools, but most schools still do not have access to them. The Government’s current plans mean that from 2025 half of England’s 8 million school age children will still not have access to a MHST in their school, should they need it. 
  • Supporting the creation of a network of ‘one stop shop’ local online NHS information hubs, based on NHS Healthier Together, to signpost children and families to appropriate local mental health support where it is available.
  • Harnessing the power of digital technology in a way that benefits the mental health of children by rolling out school-based research surveys nationally. This would gather local information about children’s mental health and wellbeing, identify geographical hotspots and determine when the ‘emotional temperature’ of the school is in the danger zone, so that schools can offer early support.
  • Tackling the upstream determinants of poor mental health, including early support for neurodivergent children. The evidence shows that pre-school and primary school experience can increase the risk for mental health conditions. Government’s strategy to improve the social and emotional wellbeing of young people should include a focus on the pre-school and primary school years. 
  • Addressing the workforce crisis in educational psychology provision to encourage a larger number of graduate psychologists to support schools, alongside teacher training and career development that equips teaching staff to create classroom and school environments that promote pupil wellbeing and support the mental health needs of pupils. 

Crucial window

Dr Camilla Kingdon, former President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said:“There is a huge evidence base for the importance of good mental health in childhood. However, sadly nearly 50% of lifetime mental health conditions are established by 14 years. We have a crucial window of opportunity to intervene to support children with mental health problems. We cannot let these children slip through the system without help.  

“The UK needs to prioritise mental health and wellbeing of children for the sake of our children - and all our futures. There are solutions at our fingertips - we just need the political will to make it happen.”  

Professor Mark Mon Williams, Child of The North report series editor, added: “There is no better measure of the health of a nation than the mental wellbeing of its children and young people. The statistics on mental health in children are heartbreaking and demand immediate action. The UK must prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of its children and young people if it wants to enjoy long term prosperity. This report shows how the next Government could and should invest in the UK’s future wellbeing.”

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About this research

The report, Improving mental health and wellbeing with and through educational settings can be accessed in full via the following link: 

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