Systemic failure in mental health


The education system is exacerbating our children’s mental health issues.

Education is critical to our country’s economic success, but are we putting the requirement to pass exams above that of our children’s health, and in doing so worsening pupils’ special educational needs (SEN) and mental illness?

According to research (YouGov/MyCognition 2015*) 21 per cent of parents have a child who has a learning or behavioural difficulty, or SEN. This is equivalent to about 1.7 million children and only 51 per cent have an official diagnosis. As a result, 36 per cent of parents feel helpless, over 40 per cent say it makes family life more stressful, over half worry excessively about their child’s future, and 29 per cent say it is a daily struggle. Additional research links SEN to poor cognitive health and with a higher risk of developing poor mental health.

A child with SEN might struggle with a subject like maths. They try hard, but find every lesson painful. They dread being asked a question because they fear they will look stupid. Some children sit quietly trying to be invisible, while some may distract other pupils. However, when their poor grades are discovered, they invariably get extra maths, something they see as punishment. In extreme cases, the child might rebel and be excluded from lessons or school. Their future children may also suffer with SEN, as the cycle repeats over again.

Mounting pressure

This example is the tip of a big iceberg of potentially 1.7 million children. Exclusion from school is only one of the adverse events as mental illness is increasing like a slow epidemic. The pressures from education have resulted in a three-fold increase in the rate of child self-harming and eating disorders, and addictions to drugs, alcohol, and social media, with over a third of 15-year-olds spending more than six hours a day online. We see increasing levels of depression, anxiety and even suicide. There are high rates of school exclusions and high levels of youth custody. Half of the children involved in crime have been in care. The Prisons Inspector is also warning of a “staggering” decline in safety at youth jails. We rank among the worst of OECD countries in these respects. These problems mostly impact the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

In response, UK children with SEN are increasingly medicated, with over a million prescriptions for ADHD drugs in 2014 – more than double of a decade ago. However, research casts doubt over the diagnosis of attention problems in children and on the effectiveness of methylphenidate, the most common drug for ADHD. Methylphenidate is reported not to work in 25 per cent of children and has been reported to have side effects, including heart problems. Guidelines state that drugs should be used as a last resort, preferably after, safer non-drug alternative interventions.

The consequences of poor cognitive fitness affect us all, as they contribute significantly to the UK’s worsening economic situation. Our research has shown that poor cognition is responsible for 80 per cent of the costs to our healthcare, social care, criminal justice system and poor productivity.

Research suggests that if we put a child’s health first, we reduce SEN and mental illness and improve academic performance at the same time. We can do this by assessing cognitive fitness and using the results to produce targeted cognitive training.

Further information

A former neuroscientist, Keiron Sparrowhawk is the author of Executive function: cognitive fitness for business, and the founder of MyCognition, a company providing assessments for cognitive health and targeted brain training:

* (YouGov Plc. Research. Total sample size was 12,554 adults, of whom 538 were parents with a child aged four to 18 affected by a learning or behavioural difficulty. Fieldwork was undertaken between 24 April to 1 May 2015. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).)

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