10th May, 2021 1:01 pm
Schools will be given £17 million to improve mental health support for pupils, Vicky Ford, the children’s minister, said yesterday as she spoke of her struggle with anorexia.
Head teachers welcomed the investment but said that more should be spent on tackling the underlying causes, particularly child poverty.
The government said that thousands of pupils would benefit from better support and advice. It said that up to 7,800 schools and colleges in England would be offered £9.5 million to train a senior mental health lead from their staff in the next academic year.
Another £7 million would fund a “wellbeing for education recovery” programme to provide free training and support for staff dealing with children who have experienced pressures during lockdown, such as trauma, anxiety or grief.
A further £1 million will be spent on a link programme to improve partnerships between local health and education leaders.
Ford, 53, who grew up in Omagh, Northern Ireland, said: “The past year has been incredibly difficult for so many children and young people whose resilience in the face of so much change has been heroic.”
Of her own challenges, she said: “We cannot ignore that the scars left by Covid-19 will continue to impact the mental health of students beyond this academic year. For me, what started out as a harmless diet snowballed into a sickness — anorexia — which for too long has been such a taboo word and illness.
“It dominated my life and I became obsessed with the one thing that I could control: my diet. Isolation, loneliness, a lack of control over your life: these are the words young people use when they tell me how their lives are afflicted by mental illness. It’s what Covid-19 has brought to many lives and why we have seen increasing numbers of people experiencing anorexia and bulimia in England during the pandemic.
“If we are going to support these young people properly, of course we need to overcome the outdated stigma of it. But we also need to make sure the support is there early on.”
Ford, a mother of three who was an investment banker before she entered politics, said that she also wanted school relationships and sex education to focus on women’s health problems, including eating disorders, self-harm and post-natal depression.
Her announcement comes as the president and former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics warn of “the enormous indirect cost” of the pandemic to young people. In a letter to The Times Dr Camilla Kingdon and Professor Russell Viner write of poor mental health and stalled social development. They add: “The UK government’s message to the young has been clear: you may be seen but you will not be heard.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This [investment] comes after years of government underfunding of schools and colleges which has taken its toll on their capacity to provide pastoral support and very severe difficulties in accessing NHS children’s mental health services for young people with complex problems. The initiatives are a step in the right direction.”
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