School mental health care ‘faces growing pressure as lockdown pupils return’

·3-min read
There are concerns hundreds of schools could be forced to reintroduce tougher Covid measures  (PA Wire)
There are concerns hundreds of schools could be forced to reintroduce tougher Covid measures (PA Wire)

School mental health support services will come under increased pressure as teenagers return to the classroom and problems from the lockdowns emerge, headteachers warned on Tuesday.

It comes amid concerns that hundreds of schools could be forced to reintroduce tougher Covid measures because of a rise in cases.

Education unions claimed the removal of mitigations, including bubbles and face masks, could fuel the surge and lead to significant disruption to learning by the end of next month.

James Handscombe, head of Harris Westminster sixth form, said the rise in mental health problems was another major challenge for schools. He added that young people’s mental health was worse than it was before the pandemic, and headteachers were preparing for a greater burden to fall on counselling and support services.

Secondary schools are already under pressure after being tasked with organising on-site Covid testing for all pupils as the new year begins. It is feared that schools risk being distracted from teaching because they have to focus on their public health responsibilities.

Teachers also have to plan catch-up work, reassure parents about the safety of schools and reopen extra-curricular activities.

Mr Handscombe said: “There is certainly a lot for us to do… there is a finite amount of money in the world but I would be targeting it at supporting pastoral care and the mental health needs of young people, particularly at low-level preventative interventions.”

Mr Handscombe, who has appointed a student support officer to help students with mental health needs, said many teenagers would benefit just from sitting down to speak to a grown-up for an hour, while others need help getting back into the structure of school after “messy and chaotic lives” during lockdown.

Others with problems such as self-harm and eating disorders need more intensive support, he added.

Mr Handscombe continued: “We are doing everything we can to support our students and I am sure it’s true of all heads. There are a lot of people who have been bereaved. There are a lot of people who are going to need looking after because of that. The lockdown has been very difficult for teenagers. It has made the average mental health of young people worse and we have been seeing a need to provide for students who have been trapped in small accommodation, with most of their social interactions happening across the internet. If you were to think about the things that are preventative for mental health, they would be to get out and see the sky and talk to people and not spend too long on the internet, and all those things have been constrained by lockdown so there are going to be a lot of issues.”

Other London headteachers said that although there were concerns about rising case rates, schools must remain open.

Jan Balon, head of the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham, said: “All of us desperately hope that this academic year will have some semblance of normality... Nationally, the priority has to be to keep schools open — the damage done by closures will only be seen over the coming months and years and we cannot afford to increase this further.”

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