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Three reasons why schools should offer mental health interventions

Dr Aleisha Clarke and Miriam Sorgenfrei outline why schools are well positioned to reach all children and young people with evidence-based interventions, including those who may have less supportive homes and those who may be reluctant to actively seek help.

The recent Youth Index by the Prince’s Trust has found a quarter of young people feel unable to cope with life. Report after report reveals the mental health burden that is being amplified by lockdown conditions. Indeed, our own research found the first national lockdown contributed to a decline in children’s mental health. If there was a crisis in young people's mental health before the pandemic, then it can only be worse now. So it is crucial that children are supported in the most effective ways possible. That includes at school where – once they reopen – children will spend of the bulk their day.

Schools play a crucial role in providing support to children and young people for three key reasons:

1. Schools are in a unique position to reach all children

All children and young people can benefit from school-based mental health support, in particular those with less supportive home environments or where families are under additional stress. Indeed, the school environment is not only a place of learning but also an important source of friends, social networks, and adult role models, which can all have a significant influence on a young people’s development.

Schools are in the unique position of being able to reach children and young people regardless of their personal circumstances or family background.

2. School-based interventions work

School-based interventions have evidence of improving not only pupils’ wellbeing but also their mental health and behaviour. Interventions have been shown to improve outcomes including resilience and self-esteem, reduce anxiety or depressive symptoms, and prevent violent and aggressive behaviour. Mental health interventions have also been shown to improve academic achievement. Children and young people’s academic achievement and their mental health are inter-related and both are strongly associated with outcomes in later life. 

We know that school-based mental health interventions can have a significant impact on various student-level outcomes and reduce pressure on downstream services, including NHS treatment for mental health disorders. However, they can also enhance the school climate, contributing to a positive and enabling learning atmosphere by lowering stress levels, increasing job satisfaction and improving teacher wellbeing.

While there is good evidence for the multitude of positive intervention effects of school-based mental health interventions, there are also numerous interventions that have evidence of not improving outcomes as well as other interventions with no robust evidence. It is, therefore, important to understand the school’s needs as well as the evidence for individual interventions before making commissioning decisions.

In collaboration with the Education Endowment Fund, we have produced a Guidance on Improving social and emotional learning in primary schools. The EIF Guidebook already spotlights school-based social and emotional learning programmes, many of which are targeted at children and pre-adolescents.

3. School-based interventions can remove some of the common barriers

Going to school and engaging in school activities is a normal part of children’s everyday lives. Pupils do not need to be ‘recruited’ to participate in universal school-based interventions. Therefore, delivering interventions in schools is a way for practitioners to engage children who may otherwise be reluctant to seek mental health support.

School-based universal interventions enable young people to receive mental health support in a protected and familiar setting without needing to self-refer or be formally referred to specialist support.

Where schools offer targeted interventions for at-risk students or groups of students, there are likely to be lower accessibility barriers than if the same or similar interventions are offered outside of schools.

Understanding what works best so we can help more young people better

Our upcoming evidence review (published July 2021) will provide insight outcomes that different school-based mental health interventions can achieve for adolescents. We will pay attention to the context under which the interventions were proven to be effective, what the notable facilitators and barriers to implementation are and who delivered the effective interventions. We will also highlight which interventions have evidence of positive effects being maintained at long term follow-up.

It is important to utilise the potential of schools to deliver effective early interventions to boost pupils’ mental health. Understanding what works is important in the commissioning and delivery of effective interventions, so that pupils’ mental health and wellbeing are enhanced, their long-term outcomes are improved, and pressure on downstream services is reduced.

About the author

Miriam Sorgenfrei

Miriam is a senior research officer at EIF.