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The importance of mental health and wellbeing support in alternative provision

Side-profile protrait of a young boy sitting on a bench. He looks thoughful.

As Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week closes, we consider the importance and necessity of in-school counselling and therapy services, particularly in alternative provision schools, to address the growing need for specialist mental wellbeing support where it is otherwise unavailable.

The pre-pandemic picture of education was already one of a system under pressure. But since the last of the national lockdowns, amid a backdrop of both teacher retention and cost-of-living crises, we have seen schools struggle to support their students to both academically and socially recover, or “catch-up”, from the pandemic.

A critical outcome of this has been the rise in mental health struggles amongst children and young people. NHS Digital found that nearly 1 in 5 children aged 7-16 years old had a probable mental health disorder in 2022. In the long term, Young Minds reported that 67% of 13-25 year olds believed the pandemic will have a negative effect on their mental health for many years to come.

Stretched services

In tandem, the services available to support children’s mental health have been stretched. Waiting times can be a postcode lottery with some children waiting up to 2 years before getting an initial assessment. Even still, 34% of those who do get referred into NHS services are not accepted into treatment. Only young people referred at risk of suicide can access prioritised support; a bleak unwritten threshold.

The result has been an unmeetable demand for in-school mental health support from teachers who, for many students, are the first port of call when struggling. In fact, alongside GPs and social workers, teachers constitute ‘Tier 1’ of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).

Mental health support in schools

Increasing demand for mental health support is particularly true in Alternative Provision (AP) schools, like those delivered by Catch22. Alternative Provision schools are those which cater to children for whom mainstream school is not appropriate. Often, students of Alternative Provisions will have been excluded, or be at risk of exclusion. A high proportion of students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and many have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and/or Mental Health issues. In fact, students with Social, Emotional or Mental Health (SEMH) needs are disproportionately excluded and make up 64% of students in Alternative Provision, meaning they require extra specialised support to enable them to access the same level of education as their mainstream peers.

The need for pastoral support is increasing. However, it is reported that just 40% of classroom teachers in England report feeling equipped to teach children in their class who have mental health needs. That is why the likes of specialist school therapists, counsellors and advocates are more important now than ever in providing the advice and guidance needed by children and young people who are struggling with their mental health.

Building skills and resilience for life

Students at Catch22’s Include Norfolk, an Alternative Provision school based across Norwich and Kings Lynn, can access counselling for free and for as long as they need it with their in-school counsellor, Latania. Many students have experienced trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), not to mention exclusion from mainstream schooling, instilling a feeling of vulnerability and isolation from their community. Therapy sessions are ‘needs-based’ and concerned with meeting the unique social and emotional needs of the student. Sessions may include Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Behaviour Therapy, Interpersonal Therapy, Therapeutic Storytelling, Guided Imagery and Relaxation Techniques.

Latania tells us:

“There are many different models of therapy out there, I believe that effective therapy is like teaching someone to fish. You can give them a fish and they will have one meal but if you teach them the skills they can eat for life. Solution-focussed therapy teaches our students the skills they need to head off mental health problems for life. Sometimes a student only needs one or two sessions to feel better and learn tools to deal with life’s inevitable obstacles and barriers in healthy ways.”

Include Norfolk also continues to support their students after they have transitioned either back into mainstream schooling or on to post-16 provisions if they need or want it, to help ensure a positive transition into the next stage of their life.

When asked what must change in schools to ensure we’re meeting the mental health needs of our young people, Latania says:

“Daily in my work I come across people who have never been given insight into how our emotions work, or that we have emotional needs that must be met in healthy ways to be emotionally well. I would want the government to make emotional wellbeing a topic for all schools to address at a very young age, and a theme to maintain throughout education.”

We welcome the introduction of mental health support teams working with schools, but the government must go further by properly investing in specialist and dedicated counselling and therapy services in all schools. Only then can we hope to see our young people leave school mentally-healthy and thriving.