Teachers' help sought to spot mental illness

TEACHERS are to be recruited to help identify the growing numbers of pupils with mental health conditions under new guidelines to be issued to schools in Scotland.

One in ten children under the age of 15 are now estimated to suffer from a significant mental health problem, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders or hyperactivity.

Now a draft plan has been drawn up by Scottish experts to improve the care of young people and make sure they get quicker access to treatment. The new document has been drawn up by NHS Quality Improvement Scotland (NHS QIS), which is holding a consultation on the advice until February.

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Dr Fiona Forbes, the child and adolescent mental health adviser at NHS QIS, said it was vital that different professionals worked together to support children needing help.

"In terms of involving education, for example, it is to help pick up children and teenagers who are struggling with mental health problems and allow them (schools] to help in the assessment process as well as the treatment process," she said.

Forbes, a consultant psychiatrist, said teachers and other staff in schools should be looking for significant changes in a child's behaviour.

"With a child who may have been managing well both socially and academically, if they see a deterioration then that should cause some concern," she said.

"Also, if they see children are struggling with concentration, and that is long-standing, they might want to consider if that might be part of larger problem like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD].

"Mainly it is where they see a child who is struggling socially and not just with their work. If children are not getting on with other children in the classroom, either because they are socially withdrawn or if they are particularly aggressive and fighting, then that is cause for alarm."

Forbes said that at least one in ten children, and an even higher proportion among adolescents, have a significant mental health problem that affects their life at school and at home. Schools can play a vital role in helping flag up children in need of help.

"If we think about a child's life, so much of that life is spent at school, so as well as picking up problems, teachers and education staff are really important in terms of supporting children," she said.

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"Often we involve them in not just assessment and getting information, but also supporting and monitoring how a child is getting on while they are still attending our services.

"One difficulty is that, of course, it tends to be children with difficult behaviour who will get spotted more readily," Forbes added."We also have to alert schools to being aware if a child is becoming quieter or withdrawn."

But teachers and campaigners expressed concern about how schools could implement the advice at a time of severe budget cuts and without extra training.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of teaching union EIS, said: "Health issues - mental and physical - impact significantly on pupils' learning needs and potential attainment.

"However, these draft standards are not only very complex but also hugely aspirational, emerging at a time when education service budget cuts are slashing and burning numbers of teaching and additional support needs staff in schools across Scotland.

"In the absence of any concrete specification of resource requirements for their implementation, the draft standards will serve only to widen the gap between expectations and the reality of what happens on the ground in our schools."

Billy Watson, chief executive of the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), said any proposals to involve teachers in recognising and assisting students with mental health issues were welcome, but more needed to be done.

"It's clear that teachers are not getting the training and support they need to teach mental health issues, let alone identify and refer young people with mental health problems," he said. "Teachers need this training and support first, before we demand even more from them."