Can we stem the mental health tide during a cost-of-living crisis?

Chris Wright, Head of Health & Wellbeing at children’s charity the Youth Sport Trust, writes about why we need prevention, not cure amid the cost-of-living crisis on World Mental Health Day.

I read two articles recently that left a feeling of helplessness and bewilderment, but also a sense of opportunity.

The first was an article by Dr Alex George that stated there had been “enough referrals to CAMHS for children and young people to fill Wembley Stadium in May 2022 alone”. The second came from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy with similarly grim headlines stating “66% of therapists have reported that the cost-of-living crisis was causing a further decline in the mental health of their clients and 49% reported their clients had already stopped activities such as gym memberships and sports club memberships”.

Covid has had a significant impact here, but the cost-of-living crisis is going to only exacerbate these issues and the education sector is going to face the brunt of this with more children arriving in school cold, hungry and anxious. Already we are seeing a tightening of household budgets on those things that matter most during childhood such as sports clubs, trips and the equipment young people need for a positive school experience. We are seeing a mental health system overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of children being referred for support through increased stress and anxiety disorders and adverse childhood experiences.

The basic physical and mental health needs of children are not being met and the situation is only going to get worse. All the things valued by families and children which supports their development, health and education is being eroded. So, now you can see why this might bring up feelings of helplessness…what really can we do to stem this tide? And how did we get to this point as a country where we have children growing up without their basic needs being met so they can be healthy and thrive?

However, I do sense an opportunity here. I was reading these articles to better inform the work we do at the Youth Sport Trust to ensure every child has a foundation of positive physical and mental health and it brought me back to the first conundrum, prevention versus cure.

I believe that schools have an opportunity to help stem the tide of mental health issues by continuing or starting to provide the formal and informal curriculum opportunities that support children’s physical and mental health. We have seen schools implementing programmes such as Active in Mind, a fully funded programme harnessing the strategies of physical activity and lifestyle behaviours to help young people improve mood, reduce anxiety and regulate emotions.

This year, schools that have taken the Active in Mind approach have seen:

  • 71% coping better
  • 68% feeling more positive overall
  • 61% more confident
  • 64% more relaxed

These students were at risk of mental health disorders and likely to be receiving pastoral support. Some may have been referred to CAMHS had it not been for their involvement in this type of programme.

The second conundrum is about the place of sport and play and how we harness its power. If it is so important in supporting every child’s right to good health; how do we use this ‘power’ if it isn’t provided, or children haven’t got access to it? If families can’t afford to provide PE kit, pay for sports clubs, or play activities, then those children in our poorest communities will stay inactive and further exacerbate their mental health issues, along with affecting their wider development and education.

With growing inequalities around things like mental health we need to give every child access to sport and play and school is the place to start. We can harness this power to prevent the growing mental health wave from crashing over us all, but the only way we can do that is by reducing the barriers to access and creating opportunities for every child to engage. My final reflection on this topic brings me back to my passion project; Boys Move. When working with some boys on the things that affected their mental health, they were very clear. The things they identified as important to them were, friendships, happiness, family, and having fun. On the other side, they identified feelings of frustration, depression, were worried about bullying and ‘straighteners’, stress, body image and money. However, the one issue that came up repeatedly was ‘anger’, feelings of anger and not being able to control it, especially when feeling frustrated in school and with experiences in their family. Although the anger and frustration these young peoples were feeling may be the symptom of any number of issues, the number one issue they spoke about related to poverty.

Physical Education and sport have the potential and flexibility to teach young people more than sport-based skills. Done well, it can develop a wide range of pro-social character traits – empathy, integrity, teamwork, collaboration, perseverance. It also provides opportunities to reflect on, identify and control strong emotions. In my opinion, PE is one of the only subjects where pupil voice can truly be heard and directly contributes to the prevention of mental health issues.

I do believe there are things schools can do that are within their gift to stem the tide and I do think the desperate situation we find ourselves in with children’s mental health presents an opportunity to think differently about how we tackle the issue of prevention versus cure.

Yes, we absolutely need to ensure every child is warm and fed! I also accept schools cannot control this or be accountable for this. But they can be responsible for doing all the things that support good health within the policy and curriculum framework they have, and that starts with every school providing opportunities for every child to move.

Let’s not take this away from them, when there are millions of children that need it right now.

Find out more about the Youth Sport Trust’s fully funded programmes here:

Schools can also join the Well Schools movement.

Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisajwright.

Published on 22 November 2022