Mental health support in schools: 'Families don’t have to spend years on waiting lists'

MindSpace initiative embeds mental health practitioners in schools so children have easy access to treatment. Its leaders want to roll it out nationally

When Grace Hartill was 11, she began to show the first signs of anxiety. Within a few years, the Barnsley schoolgirl had become withdrawn and had stopped wanting to see her friends.

“It was awful,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave my bedroom because I felt like if I did, something would happen to me or somebody I loved. Home was where I felt safest, so I just isolated myself. I barely went to school.”

As her mental health worsened, she was referred to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) but was on the waiting list for two years. When she finally did get treatment, it didn’t help. She adds: “Camhs and the other services I tried just didn’t help. I felt like the therapists didn’t want to be there.”

It wasn’t until a groundbreaking service, MindSpace, launched in her school that Grace began to experience some relief. Funded by Barnsley clinical commissioning group (CCG) through its Future in Mind fund, the initiative works by embedding mental health practitioners in secondary schools so children don’t have to be taken out of school to access treatment. The scheme, originally piloted last academic year by 10 schools and officially launched in October 2017, aims to tackle poor mental health while bypassing traditional services, which are seeing rising demand coupled with insufficient capacity.

Consisting of three primary health practitioners, a parent counsellor, a family support worker and an emotional health support worker, the MindSpace team offers one-to-one sessions and groups for specific issues such as bereavement. It is led by Michelle Sault, head of extended services at the Wellspring Academy Trust, who came up with the idea after running a pupil referral unit, and seeing children who she believed didn’t belong there.

“I think school is where a young person should be,” Sault says. “There are a lot of discrepancies in Camhs, and in schools that don’t have funding to provide as much pastoral support as is needed these days. It’s an injustice in a sense that young people aren’t supported earlier before things escalate.”

Before the launch of MindSpace, Grace’s mother, Lisa Robinson, was at her “wit’s end”; her son was struggling with anxiety and behavioural issues, and she also has mental health problems. She remembers: “None of us were in a good place. I thought we should give it a go and it will either work or it won’t. Thankfully it did. Grace was soon able to identify when she was having anxiety attacks and to understand that she wasn’t going to die.”

Within a few months, there was a marked improvement in the household. Both children were going to school without problems and Robinson, who was one of 63 parents who also received counselling, felt better than she had in years. “I think it’s amazing to have it in schools so that families don’t have to spend years on waiting lists and the whole family can be helped,” she says.

Grace agrees: “It made all three of us happier. It’s like we were searching for something that wasn’t there and then it came along. It really worked wonders. Compared to other services I tried, I felt like MindSpace really wanted to be there and they wanted to listen to me. They understood what I was going through and made me realise I wasn’t the only one going through it.”

Funding for the £1.3m programme, which is delivered in all Barnsley secondary schools, is guaranteed until at least 2020. In its first year, more than 200 young people have been supported and more than 100 teachers trained by Sheffield-based mental health charity Chilypep. The training is being rolled out to all staff in all the schools – and one of the key aims is to create an environment where everyone can be open about mental health and wellbeing.

Patrick Otway, head of commissioning for Barnsley CCG, says that while no formal evaluation has been published yet, numerous positive case studies have been gathered – and a full impact assessment is on the cards. “In 2013, we had gathered evidence that there was very little support for young people in Barnsley for lower level emotional needs,” he says. “At the time, there was no funding to develop the service – so when the Future in Mind report and funding became available, the CCG already knew what was needed.”

Statistics show that one in 10 children has depression, anxiety or another diagnosable mental health problem – so the MindSpace team hope to see the model rolled out nationally. Brigid Reid, chief nurse for the CCG, says it’s this combining of health and education that makes the scheme successful. “Having [Sault’s] insights into how schools work and what students and parents need, think and feel – and to marry that with the expertise of the practitioners employed, that’s what makes it unique,” she says.

Mental health practitioner Angela Yildiz agrees. “Education and health do work well together,” she says. “Initially there were some difficulties given this has never been done. But the teachers really work with me, not against me.”

For Kate Davies, headteacher at one of the schools, Darton college, the best thing about the scheme is it means teachers can concentrate on what they do best. “The concept of having trained mental health practitioners as part of the school – and ours really is part of the team – is so simple yet so obvious,” she says.

For Robinson’s family, the difference has been almost unbelievable, especially in Grace. “One day Grace came home from school and just said casually that she was going to her friend’s house. I could not believe what she was saying. That was the turnaround for Grace. She is now doing performing arts at college and is learning to drive. It’s the best decision I made as a mum, and as an individual.”

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Nicola Slawson

The GuardianTramp

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