Children's Mental Health Week: You don't need to be Dumbledore to foresee the future

By Pepe Di’lasio, Headteacher, Wales High School and ASCL Vice President

Probably our most famous headteacher of recent years is Albus Dumbledore and somewhat surprisingly, it is he that I sometimes turn to when I am considering what the future might hold. The government announcement on 27 January in which we heard that schools would not fully reopen until after our half-term gave me some space to think and encouraged me, perhaps for the first time in many weeks, to look further into the future.

Predicting the future for ‘muggles’ can be somewhat more of a challenge, although Sir Isaac Newton first predicted the existence of the planet Neptune through some incredibly advanced mathematical modelling based on his laws of gravity. In 1964, Peter Higgs predicted ‘The Higgs boson’, an elementary particle, based on a theoretical model whose existence wasn’t able to be confirmed until 2012. 

I would not want my prediction today for the coming weeks and months to be placed up there amongst those incredible stellar predictions. Even Dumbledore had the benefit of his ‘Pensieve’ which enabled him to see into the future and predict with some certainty: 
I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into a basin and examines them at ones leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.” (JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

Like Dumbledore, this week enabled me some space “to siphon off excess thoughts and I hope to have spotted patterns and links”. It is something that, with great sadness I think too many of us will already be predicting as the next challenge to come at school and college leaders. 

Most recently there has been a great deal of talk about the need for investment to reduce the digital divide and there is no doubt that this has needed to be a priority (past tense) certainly over this last year. My prediction for the future, however, is not a focus on the digital issue but instead for the need for us, as a nation, to focus on the oncoming mental health crisis. 

Ticking time bomb
The start of February marks Children’s Mental Health Week. We are facing what I consider to be a ticking time bomb in the wake of the Covid crisis and lockdown we’re all enduring. If we choose to ignore this we will almost inevitably experience an explosion in the number of young people suffering from poor mental health, potentially causing endless damage to a generation unless we act to defuse it. Quickly.

The Educational Policy Institute (EPI) and The Prince’s Trust published a report on 27 January, which I think highlights the significance of this ticking bomb and also accurately reflects and reinforces what I, and I am sure many colleagues, are seeing across our schools. 

The report highlights that many factors contribute to poor mental health, but the biggest influencers are:
  • poverty
  • the heavy use of social media leading to an increase in bullying
  • poor standards of health with a low frequency of exercise, clearly exacerbated by the lockdown and leading to increasing levels of obesity

Almost in a ‘perfect storm’, all these major influences are made significantly worse in a lockdown situation where unemployment is rising, directives to stay at home and inevitably, young people forced to spend more hours online in a virtual world.

I am guessing none of these influences come as a surprise to anyone and none of these influences will come across at the highly intelligent ‘rocket science’ level that Professor Higgs was able to predict. 

But the important question here is: what can we do about it?

Five-point plan of action
The EPI report identifies a number of key recommendations and I would like to suggest a simple five-point plan that perhaps government could adopt and bring into action as soon as possible:
  • Redirect focus to prevention rather than reaction: an effective strategy requires expanding current thinking beyond mental healthcare. Focusing primarily on specialist care is a reactive approach to illness once it has developed, at which point interventions are more costly and less likely to be effective. Prevention is certainly better than cure.
  • Targeting early intervention: as most lifelong mental health issues begin in adolescence, any strategy to reduce the burden of mental ill-health for the population as a whole should prioritise interventions as early in young people’s lives as possible. 
  • Increase funding to local mental health providers to allow them to better identify and work together to support children with needs which do not meet diagnostic thresholds. Use this funding to ensure a four-week waiting time for specialist mental healthcare across the country, including clear details on funding and staffing requirements. Additionally, release a £650m post-pandemic wellbeing funding package to schools and colleges to match academic catch-up funding. 
  • Build on existing mental health content and CPD in schools: ensure the health education and relationships and sex education curriculum effectively helps young people to understand how different characteristics, identities, backgrounds, and stereotypes around these, can affect their mental health. Schools and colleges should be encouraged to adopt evidence-based techniques to support good mental health and reduce psychological distress, such as mindfulness. Additionally, school and college leaders should be encouraged to spend time in alternative provision (AP) settings as part of ongoing CPD or prior to entering a leadership role.
  • Invest and promote safer, healthier neighbourhoods: ensure all young people have easy access to options for engaging in physical activity. Ensure investment in innovative and creative schemes which encourages places and organisations to provide a hub for positive community engagement, such as centres for young people, libraries and sports clubs.

Clearly, there is a challenge for the government in addressing the stark influences that have such a direct impact on our young people’s mental health but unfortunately, many of these issues require a wider societal response beyond that of ‘schools alone’. We need a strategic action plan and we need it fast.

Even Dumbledore confesses that “The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed.”  (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

So, my challenge to our government is to not just sit back and wait for this prediction to come to fruition. None of us want this, no one can argue against the potentially devastating impact, we don’t need a ‘Pensieve’ to see into the future, just the policy and support to move to prevention rather than reaction.

Pepe Di’lasio is Headteacher at Wales High School and ASCL Vice President
Posted: 01/02/2021 12:11:25