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Eight-year-old children in the UK will be given lessons on happiness and teenagers will be instructed on combating anxiety and suicidal thoughts under government projects due to be trialled. The Department for Education (DfE) is inviting bidders for multimillion-pound contracts to offer mental health training in more than 200 schools.
Mindfulness lessons will reportedly encourage children to think of disturbing thoughts as “buses” that will move away, and they will be given questionnaires on bullying and friends. It is the latest attempt by Theresa May’s team to tackle what she called in January the “burning injustice of mental health and inadequate treatment that demands a new approach”. An estimated 10% of children suffer a diagnosable mental health condition and mental illness is costing about £105bn each year. Lord Layard, who is a government adviser for a current four-year trial of weekly mindfulness classes in 26 schools, said there was an obsession with measuring only academic achievement.
“The development of the character of children is an incredibly important issue,” said Layard, who is also a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). “If you really want schools to take the wellbeing of their pupils as an important goal, there has to be a way of measuring that.” The trials will follow a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research which said all secondary schools needed access to a mental health professional on site, at least one day a week, to combat anxiety and depression. The National Audit Office claims there is a £3bn funding gap in schools.
Laura Henry, an early years consultant and former Ofsted inspector, said the trials could save the government billions in social care and housing costs down the line. “I think it’s an excellent idea,” she said. “Over the last decade there has been a massive push to academia, results and school league tables and children’s personal social development has been left behind. “A holistic approach is needed and children should be able to self-regulate their own behaviour.” Henry, a former teacher whose elder son is on the autistic spectrum, said specially trained teachers should help with grieving techniques and that any questions about bullying and pupils’ friends needed to be sensitive. “It’s absolutely the best way to spend DfE money,” he said. “It will save x amount of money in social care when they are adults.”
The government’s contracts for three trials, the Youth Aware of Mental Health (Yam) , The Guide and the “preventive programmes”, are out to tender until 24 March. The Guide, based on a Canadian model, will involve specially trained teachers giving 13- to 15-year-olds 60-minute classes on the different types of mental illnesses and how to combat them. Yam, which mirrors schemes elsewhere in Europe, will give sessions by a trained instructor, lasting 45 to 60 minutes, focusing on collecting pupils’ attitudes. The two will be rolled out to 135 secondary schools. The third trial, of the preventive programmes, designed for 100 primary schools and 50 secondaries, will be a “lighter touch” about wellbeing for children between Year 4 and Year 8. Prison psychiatrists warn care is ‘at breaking point’ .
The three projects will run between this May and summer 2019.The Sunday Times reported that children would be told to compare mental illness to buses and be asked to rate statements such as: “Other people pick on me or bully me.” A spokesperson for the DfE, which says it is pumping £1.4bn into mental health support for young people, refused to comment on detail. “We know that schools often want to provide specific interventions to promote the mental wellbeing of their pupils but sometimes struggle to know what approaches to use,” the spokesperson added. “That is why we have announced plans to do further research trials in schools on what interventions work best.”