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Depression and self-harm on the rise among school children


Rising mental health issues are placing increasing pressure on schools as referral delays and ‘red tape’ obstruct school leaders from fulfilling their safeguarding duties.

Incidents of self-harm among children and young people have risen in almost half (45%) of schools in England, which equates to more than 10,000 schools[1], according to research from The Key – the organisation providing leadership and management support to schools.

The Key’s annual State of Education survey report[2] reveals that three in five (60%) of the headteachers and other school leaders surveyed have also seen an increase in depression among students over the past two years.

While pupil mental health was the most prevalent health and safeguarding concern for school leaders in both 2015 and 2016 when asked about a range of issues, worry over domestic violence, drugs and sexting also increased over this period.[3]

A headteacher in a secondary school in the west Midlands said: “We’re seeing students presenting a wide range of issues and we are having to increase our pastoral support. Early help outside of school is at best inadequate.”

A primary school special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) said: “There has been an increase in self-harm and suicide attempts in our school and there is not enough mental health support for these children. The sexualised behaviour team are also involved in three children's cases at school due to serious behaviours...”

Adding to the pressure felt by schools, almost two-thirds (63%) of school leaders told The Key last year that children’s services or social services being slow or failing to respond to referrals[4] was a barrier to fulfilling their safeguarding duties. More than a third (37%) also reported that excessive paperwork and bureaucracy were obstacles to completing their duties[5].

One designated safeguarding lead (DSL) at a secondary school said: “The rise in mental health problems is huge, and safeguarding issues are also becoming really broad – there are so many things to cover now. The biggest challenge as a DSL is trying to keep up to date and working out what staff need to know.”

Speaking about the findings, Fergal Roche, CEO of The Key said: “With worry over safeguarding issues growing and many schools feeling the pressure, it is critical that school leaders have the dedicated time they need to focus on supporting their pupils.”

On the issue of self-harm, The Key’s report[6] demonstrates that while more than a third (38%) of school leaders in London saw incidents increase among pupils over the past two years, more than half (54%) of leaders in the north west said the same.

Self-harm also seems to be more prevalent in coastal areas with nearly six in 10 (57%) school leaders witnessing an increase in incidents since 2015 compared to just over four in 10 (43%) in inland areas.

In response to calls for more support for pupil mental health, the government has recently pledged £200,000 towards mental health “first aid” training for secondary school teachers to help them identify and deal with issues like anxiety, self-harm and depression. The money is expected to fund training for 1,000 teachers in the first year of the scheme.[7]

Despite the government’s commitment to extend this training to all primary schools by the end of parliament, the plans have received criticism for not going far enough[8]. It may also be coming too late for many children, with over half of primary school leaders (55%) telling The Key that they have already seen a rise in depression among pupils over the last two years.[1]

However, schools are doing all they can to support their pupils’ wellbeing. Interventions include staff working closely with parents in two-thirds (66%) of schools, and counselling provision in nearly six in 10 (58%) schools. Over half (57%) already run staff their own training to help staff identify early indicators of mental health issues.

Indicating support for a more whole-school approach, a 14-year-old pupil said: “In my year group, I think there could be as many as one person in every class that might be self-harming but we wouldn’t necessarily try to talk to them or raise this with a teacher. As students, we know how to relate to each other so more peer-to-peer support could really help pupils who are struggling.”

In light of the these findings, The Key has worked with a team of safeguarding specialists to provide INSET training materials for all schools to download now, ready to deliver in staff training sessions this September.

Fergal Roche, The Key’s CEO continued: “Ultimately, all children and young people should be given the best chances in life, and we hope these up-to-date INSET training materials will give all school staff peace of mind and free up time to give the right kind of support to those pupils who need it.”

To view The Key’s free INSET training pack, please visit:


[1] If the findings are taken to be representative of the national picture – this equals almost 11,000 schools - 45% of 24,288 schools in England (totaling 10,930 schools) based on school figures from Schools, pupils and their characteristics: 2016

[2] The Key’s 2017 State of Education report:

[3] 58% of school leaders were concerned about domestic violence in 2015, increasing to 69% in 2016. The proportions concerned about pupils’ drug use rose from 23% in 2015 to 25% in 2016, and about sexting rose from 21% to 23% in the same period: 2016 report: 2015 report:'%20concerns%20about%20pupil%20wellbeing.pdf

[4] The Key’s 2016 State of Education survey 

[5] The Key’s 2016 State of Education survey 





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