Sally Weale Education correspondent
In a girls’ school on the fringes of London, the headteacher and her deputy are contemplating the challenges their pupils face, and the toll it takes on them every day. They describe self-harm, eating disorders, depression, panic attacks, school refusal and attempted suicide.
Where do the roots of the problem lie? “I’ve been in teaching 40 years,” says the headteacher. “I’ve never known this level of dysfunction in society.”
This is a comprehensive state school with a good reputation. It gets good results and has a typically mixed intake of pupils. But like many other schools, it is increasingly being called on to support children with mental health issues. And, like many others, its staff are warning that the squeeze on their budgets is leading to cuts in vital pastoral support.
The head agrees to talk on condition of absolute anonymity for fear of being branded “the school with all the problems”. But she says these issues will affect every school in the country, “regardless of what they say”.
Many of the girls have complex home lives that are affected by unemployment, housing, relationship breakdown, domestic violence, parental neglect, bereavement, and substance abuse including drugs and alcohol.
Cases include fathers arrested for looking at child pornography on the internet, arrests for drug dealing, mothers taking daughters to a refuge to escape a violent partner and Muslim parents struggling with girls who want more freedom. “All these external pressures start early,” says the head. “They are carrying all that with them, and then we expect them to sit in classrooms and learn.”
Self-harm is one of the methods girls are using to cope with their distress. “We have girls who scratch and cut; we have girls who pull out their hair and their eyelashes. Traditionally, it used to be wrists they cut. It’s thighs now, and tummies ... anywhere which can’t be seen.” Their weapons of choice may be the contents of their pencil case: compass points, the blades from pencil sharpeners, paper clips.
It can start young. In a discussion about mental health with a group of students, one girl described going to her kitchen at midnight, taking out the knives and forks and scraping her arms and legs until she bled. She was still in primary school. “I felt like I deserved to hurt myself.”
Many of those who took part in the discussion had self-harmed; some girls posted pictures on social media of their wounds. Others describe feeling depressed, having extreme anxiety and suffering panic attacks. It’s hard to keep in mind that the majority of pupils here – like elsewhere – are happy and secure most of the time.
“The one girl I’m thinking of used to pull her eyelashes out and clumps of hair,” says the deputy head. “She was quite young at the time. She had just come to us from primary. In her case it was [due to] a separation of parents,” he says by way of explanation. “She was living between mum and dad – the usual acrimonious divorce.”
We move on to eating disorders. “We’ve got a girl who has just returned to school,” says the head. “She was in hospital with anorexia which set in after the death of her father. She’s a really high achiever. Our highest achievers are sometimes the ones you have to look out for the most. They don’t know how to fail.
“We seem to have a ridiculous number of parental deaths at the moment,” she adds as an afterthought, which adds to her concerns about the lack of nurture in some of the girls’ lives. “Sometimes we find the girls coming in and wanting attachment to whoever it might be – a male or female member of staff – because that’s lacking in their lives. The fact that schools now have to form ‘nurture groups’ speaks volumes,” she says.
The head and her deputy estimate that around 25-30% of their girls are suffering from mental health issues of one kind or another. At the most severe end of the scale they have two girls who are sectioned and in hospital after trying to kill themselves as a result of an internet suicide game.
There’s a girl in year 7 who thinks she’s ugly. There’s confusion over gender and sexuality, and incidents on social media can send an entire year group into a tailspin – a controversial video posted by one of the girls, a vicious cycle of hurtful and offensive comments, nude photos shared in confidence then spread far and wide, rated and commented on. Everyone gets to know, friendships are broken, and girls end up too scared to go into class. “The concept of a best friend is disappearing,” says one head of year, “now you need a squad.”
Social media presents an endlessly shifting landscape, with new crazes rapidly taking hold in classrooms and staff lagging weeks behind. Right now it’s an app called Sarahah that allows you to receive messages from friends and strangers anonymously.
It is marketed as an app to “improve your friendship by discovering your strengths and areas for improvement”. The girls are seeking validation and approval, hoping for kind and flattering comments, but often they are cruel and hurtful. The X game, in which a group picks someone to send insulting messages to on Snapchat, is another such vehicle. And girls who have been persuaded to send intimate photos of themselves can find their image shared in online “baiting” groups.
The girls describe the impact the negative comments have on their self-esteem – slut, slag, lesbo, biggest slag in the school, and worse. One girl suggests they’ve all done it themselves. “We’ve all said horrible things to each other.” Why? “Because no one can tell it’s you.”
There are not many pregnancies now; teenage conception rates are at an all-time low. Some girls are having sex – the talk is mainly of anal or oral – and the girls describe the pressure from porn. They say both boys and girls watch it, but the boys want them to look and perform like porn stars. “You’re supposed to have big boobs and big butts, but that’s porn. That’s not us,” says one girl.
The pressures of school play a part. The changes in education with the introduction of new GCSEs has put pressure on teachers which in turn impacts upon pupils. “School’s OK, but sometimes the stress can get to you as well – the levels of homework, it’s crazy,” says one girl. “I found myself working till 1am,” says another. “I’ve been in year 11 for 20 days and I’ve cried 20,000 times.”
The head and her deputy describe children who are simultaneously cosseted by their parents and emotionally neglected. “Your typical girl, from the age of 13, will come home from school, go straight up to her bedroom and can quite easily spend the next five hours there,” says the head, adding later: “The kids are not as tough as they used to be. They are not resilient enough to deal with things themselves.”
To tackle the mental health needs of their pupils, this school invests in a highly qualified behavioural psychologist who works as a counsellor for two days a week, often seeing girls and their parents at 6am, working 12-hour days to meet demand. In addition, the heads of year are non-teaching staff who provide full-time pastoral support.
“These systems really help, but they cost money,” says the head. “These are the kind of roles that will be under threat if funding cuts continue.”
The government has stated that mental health is a key priority and says it has invested £1.4bn in children’s mental health services, with strengthened links between mental health staff and schools. It is offering mental health first aid training to every secondary school, but the head says it is simply not enough.
Tom Madders, campaigns director at the mental health charity YoungMinds, says many teachers are reporting a rise in rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm among their students. “While schools shouldn’t be expected to replace specialist mental health services, they can play a crucial role in promoting good mental health and in intervening early when there are problems.
“But funding constraints, coupled with a lack of prominence given to wellbeing in the Ofsted framework, mean that when schools face tough decisions about which services to cut, they are under pressure to prioritise other areas.”