More than 700 signatories have already backed the petition from Joanne Waddell, a parent and volunteer counsellor for the charity Place2Be, who fears there is a “deepening crisis” in children’s mental health in Scotland.
Supporters say that Scotland has limited counsellors with specific training in supporting children and young people, and that school-based counselling is available only to a small minority.
Ms Waddell said: “My own experience showed how powerful in-school counselling can be for children struggling with their mental health and the challenges of growing up in a 24-hour online world.
“Getting support at an early stage can help to avert children and young people reaching crisis points where costly and lengthy interventions might be needed. This service should be available in all schools and be provided for under national health policy, not something that schools have to provide through their hard-pressed education budgets.”
Teachers ‘can’t give pupils the time they need’
One primary teacher in the north-east of Scotland who supports the petition, and asked not to be named, said: “I can really see the value of having school-based counsellors.
“I have experienced children with mental health problems becoming disruptive in class because they are unable to fully understand or communicate how they are feeling. Often, just being able to talk this through allowed them to re-engage with their learning.
Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “This petition is an opportunity for the Scottish government to recognise that young people’s mental health is still not being treated with the seriousness it deserves.
“The lives and wellbeing of countless young Scots are counting on a seismic shift in government policy.”
A Scottish government spokesman said: “We want every child and young person to have appropriate access to emotional and mental well-being support in school – our ambitious mental health strategy, launched last year, sets out clearly how we can improve early intervention, and ensure better access to services. The very first action commits us to a national review of counselling services in schools. We expect the results of thereview to inform any future work on school counsellors.”
He added: “Education authorities and all those working in our schools already have a responsibility to support and develop the mental wellbeing of pupils, with decisions on how to provide that support taken on the basis of local circumstances and needs. Some will provide access to school based counselling. Others will utilise the skills of pastoral care staff and liaise with the educational psychological services and health services for specialist support when required.”
The incoming health secretary has set up a £5m taskforce to reshape and improve child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).
Jeane Freeman condemned the existing system for referring children and young people for specialist mental health treatment.
The announcement follows publication of a report on “rejected referrals”.
An audit was announced last year after NHS figures showed thousands of referrals were being rejected.
A rejected referral occurs when CAMHS is assessed as inappropriate for the child or young person.
During the audit period in February, one in five referrals was rejected across all health boards.
It was found that decisions usually happened quickly, with most made on the basis of paper referrals rather than face-to-face assessments.
Further research gathered from seven health boards found two-thirds of their 285 rejected referrals included “signposting” to other services.
However there was a disparity between this and the views of children, young people and their families.
Of the 253 people who participated in an online survey of their experiences, only 42% felt they were signposted.
Meanwhile some reported signposting was “generic, unhelpful and often points to resources they have already explored”.
Some young people whose referral has been rejected reported a belief that they will not be seen by CAMHS unless they are suicidal or at immediate risk of harm.
The report recommended further research into the CAMHS system as a whole, work to close the gap in provision where it is not the most appropriate service, immediate changes to its assessment procedures, and ongoing data collection around rejected referrals.
Ms Freeman said: “Demand on mental health services is growing but far too many young people are being turned away from help or waiting too long to be seen.
“This report finds that, while CAMHS may not be the right path for some of those referred, young people are being rejected from treatment without proper explanation or being directed to more appropriate care.
“That is completely unacceptable.
“I am accepting the recommendations in this report and I am determined that our mental health service will be re-founded on the need to empathise, engage and explain how to get help to often very vulnerable young people.”
Mental health expert Dr Dame Denise Coia has been appointed to lead the taskforce, with initial recommendations for action expected over the summer.
More than 5,000 young people in Scotland have been denied mental health treatment during the wait for a national probe into rejected applications.
Nicola Sturgeon was challenged repeatedly at First Minister’s Questions on her government’s progress in tackling mental health issues.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said the SNP administration has let down vulnerable children by taking more than a year to complete an investigation into why so many youngsters are not getting the treatment they seek.
In Tayside and Fife alone, 816 young people have been knocked back by Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services since last March, when the government promised to launch the review.
Labour’s analysis of the Scottish Government figures showed the national figure was 5,410.
“Nicola Sturgeon once claimed she had a sacred responsibility to make sure every young person gets the same chance to succeed,” Mr Leonard said.
“She has abdicated that responsibility to some of the most vulnerable children in Scotland.”
Ms Sturgeon said the results would be published on June 12, adding there are legitimate reasons why children are not offered CAMHS treatment.
“We announced an audit, we had to plan how that audit was going to happen so that we get it right,” she said.
“The work is now underway and I’ve given the progress report on that.
“It’s important that we get that work right in order that the action that flows from it are the right actions.”
She added that the 2017/18 budget for mental health exceeded £1 billion for the first time, while the CAMHS workforce has increased by 65%.
Meanwhile, Jenny Marra, the Labour MSP, asked what progress had been made towards setting up an emergency mental health unit in Dundee that provides 24-hour support.
The report said data on students was rarely shared fully between universities and local health services, which could lead to students accessing “treatment and support with incomplete information, or not accessing it at all”.
The report added students leaving their family homes to attend university often enrolled with a new GP.
They would then return home during holidays, meaning they were without their bespoke GP care for several weeks or months.
What is Universities UK suggesting?
Universities and local NHS services should communicate more about students who may need mental health services
Local services and universities should assess the need for mental health services for students in specific towns and cities
Institutions should promote positive mental health, make reasonable adjustments for students with pre-existing conditions, and reduce the stigma of mental health
Create “student mental health teams” with NHS providers to improve referrals to specialist services
Universities UK’s head of mental health, Professor Steve West, said the system had to be “radically changed”.
“If we ignore it we will have failed a generation,” he added.
“We will be setting ourselves up for huge costs and burdens on the NHS, but more than that we will be destroying lives.”
Chief executive of Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust Paul Jenkins said: “We need to improve the links between local NHS services and the support that universities provide.
“It is essential that these young people are provided with the right support at each step of the pathway.”
The National Union of Students (NUS) said that mental health services in higher education were “strained” and “at times non-existent”.
It welcomed the report, adding: “A joined-up and coherent approach between the NHS and universities is exactly what students need.”
‘Young adults struggle with transition to adult services’
By Hugh Pym, health editor
Some of the issues highlighted at universities are linked to the state of child and adolescent mental health services.
Young people who may have struggled to get treatment from these NHS services may find that problems resurface when they get to university.
Alternatively, the transition to adult mental health provision at 18 will coincide with the start of student life away from home – and that can be disorientating.
Universities have been criticised for not investing enough in counselling services and not promoting more general well-being in student life.
But they argue that a wider strategy involving the government and the NHS as well as higher education is essential.
Schools struggle to get pupils seen by qualified mental health professionals because training for counsellors focuses too much on treating adults, warns the head of a children’s mental health charity.
Patrick Johnson, the director of learning at Place2Be, told a meeting of headteachers, charities and academics in parliament last week that it was “no surprise” there were shortages of qualified staff “given that approximately 90 per cent of formal counselling training courses are for those working in adult mental health, not with children specifically”.
Dean Johnstone, the chief executive of another charity, Minds Ahead, argued for youth mental health work to be “transformed into a career of choice for young graduates”.
Last year, Schools Week revealed that the number of educational psychologists working with schools fell 13 per cent over five years. The number employed by local authorities dropped from 1,990 in 2010 to 1,650 in 2015.
This doesn’t mean insulating young people to some of the inevitable pressures and stresses of school life
According to research by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), young people in some areas can wait up to 18 months to receive the mental health support they need.
Earlier this month, the CQC called on Ofsted to rate schools on how well they responded to the mental health needs of pupils.
According to Julian Astle, the director of creative learning and development at the Royal Society of Arts, schools had to choose between depth — expert provision from a professional — and breadth — where all school staff were trained to support young people presenting with mental health issues.
“In the RSA academies, we are purposefully going for greater breadth with an ongoing programme of training for all staff, non-teaching as well as teaching.”
At the meeting, hosted by the Liberal Democrat MP and former health minister Norman Lamb, the headteacher of Reach Academy Feltham, Ed Vainker, spoke of the “mistaken belief” that schools “are either rigorous, have high expectations and excellent results, or are supportive, nurturing and place mental health at their heart”.
Vainker said that his organisation believed those two elements “can go together and that excellent outcomes for pupils require a warm, nurturing, supportive environment for the pupil and their family”.
Jon Brunskill, a teacher at Reach Feltham, said there was “more that teachers should, and can, do”, but said ultimately the increased challenge “will only be met with a co-ordinated, multiagency approach with the child at the centre”.
David Hall, from the University of Exeter, said there was an “urgent need to lower the level of pressure on schools and children.
“This doesn’t mean insulating young people to some of the inevitable pressures and stresses of school life, but it does mean that these should be kept within tolerable levels.”
Evidence heard at the meeting will form the basis of a “call to arms” report by Minds Ahead and the education think tank LKMco, which will be published “soon”.
“So many of the issues we explore in our research trace their origin back to a youth mental health crisis that has been neglected for too long. Today’s session was an attempt to tackle the underlying issues head-on,” said LKMco director Loic Menzies.
A government consultation on young people’s mental health closed earlier this month. Proposals include £95 million funding for schools to appoint and train designated senior leads for mental health from 2019, and £215 million for new mental health support teams to work between schools and the NHS and treat pupils in the classroom.