Education cuts will have ‘devastating impact’ on mental health of young people

Northern Ireland’s mental health champion said the proposed cuts are “extremely concerning, and that the possible removal or reduction of important support programmes would have a devastating impact on young people, particularly those who suffered most during the pandemic and who continue to be affected by the cost-of-living crisis”.

Last week the Education Authority (EA) informed schools of proposals to shave £17.8m off the budget, though that fell well short of the £110m expected by the Secretary of State in his November budget plan, delivered in the absence of a sitting Assembly.

The EA said it could not support the cuts, and also rejected a revised plan to cut £45m, with Chief Executive Sara Long warning the financial challenges would “continue to increase at pace” this year and into next.

At the start of Children’s Mental Health Week, Professor O’Neill said there was an urgent need for a trauma-informed approach to the delivery of education and “a system that values emotional intelligence and critical thinking”.

She has now forward recommendations to Stormont’s All-Party Group on Mental Health, stating that the current programmes that provide additional support to young people in schools need to be maintained, and the Emotional Health and Wellbeing in Schools Framework needs to be funded in full and consistently implemented in all schools.

In her evidence to the Inquiry into Mental Health Education and Early Intervention in Schools, Professor O’Neill also reiterated a call from the Commissioner for Children and Young People, advising that equal emphasis should be placed on the measurement and improvement of the well-being of children and young people in education, as on academic attainment.

Professor O’Neill said schools should be inspected on their ability to develop the conditions required to nurture young people’s wellbeing.

“Prevention and early intervention are critical, and it is important that young people learn about how their bodies respond to stress, and how to look after their wellbeing,” she said.

“There have been calls for mental health to be included in the school curriculum but there are many areas across the curriculum where mental health and wellbeing, emotional intelligence are addressed.

“What we do find is that the quality of the provision is not assessed, and league tables outlining how well schools are doing in relation to these aspects of the curriculum are not available.”

She said that simply implementing more mental health programmes is not the answer.

“We need to ensure that all our young people have access to high-quality delivery of the curriculum and the quality assured programmes that already exist,” she said.

“We also need a recognition of the harm that can be caused by some programmes that are delivered under the auspices of “mental health”, and the importance of trauma informed practice across whole schools and in the education system.”

Professor O’Neill said there was still a failure to recognise that education and mental health are intrinsically linked.

“Raising standards in educational outcomes necessitates a focus on mental health and wellbeing; and such a focus will invariably lead to improved educational outcomes,” she continued.

“Education should be supporting young people to set and achieve goals to live a meaningful and fulfilled life. We must promote the development of critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and an understanding how our own minds and brains work. We must learn how to manage our feelings, emotional responses, and behaviours.

“That emotional intelligence and self-awareness are fundamental to mental health and wellbeing and is the basis upon which people can form relationships and achieve goals, including educational and career goals.”

In the evidence submitted there is also a reminder that one in eight children and young people in Northern Ireland have poor mental health.

The proportions of young people experiencing poor mental health has risen generally in recent years, and the rates of mental health difficulties among young people in NI are now similar to other regions. However, many young people here have suffered from the result of transgenerational exposure to trauma resulting from the Troubles as well as the mental health impact of poverty experienced by one in four children in NI, resulting in more complex mental health needs.

Professor O’Neill also stressed that young people with disabilities or health difficulties need to have the additional and specialised support and services that they need in health and education.

“As always, structural factors and inequalities account for much of the variation in mental health across Northern Ireland, including the mental health of young people, and these need to be addressed through a focused and agreed Programme for Government,” she said.

Read the full written evidence to the APG here.

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