A leading charity has blamed a “mental health emergency” among Scotland’s young people for a rise in violent incidents in classrooms.

Last week The Herald revealed that a total of 63.2% of respondents to a poll by Scotland’s largest teaching union, the EIS, said that there are “daily” incidents of violence or aggression from pupils aimed at teachers.

In addition 88% of those who responded to the survey said that incidents of violence had increased over the past four years.

Further research by NASUWT found that female teachers experienced vastly higher levels of physical abuse from pupils than their male colleagues, with 20% saying they’d experienced physical abuse or violence compared to just 3% for men.

This week the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research report for 2023 was published, which found that 67% of school staff had encountered general verbal abuse between pupils, 59% had seen physical aggression and 43% physical violence.

That report found more than a third of staff had been on the receiving end of verbal abuse, 16% had been subjected to physical aggression and 11% had experienced physical violence toward themselves or other staff in the preceding seven days.

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On Wednesday Jenny Gilruth, the cabinet secretary for education, announced £900,000 in new funding to tackle the problem, which was dismissed by the EIS as working out to around £300 per school, and by opposition MSPs as “a plan for a plan”.

Now the charity Scottish Action for Mental Health has pointed to a rise in the number of pupils seeking mental health treatment as a key factor behind the rise in violence and abuse.

Head of development and former head teacher Billy Burke told The Herald: “Children and young people are experiencing a mental health crisis so there’s no surprise that their choices, actions and behaviours become more challenging.

“Your actions are driven by your underlying thoughts and feelings and children and young people are facing more pressure on their mental health and wellbeing – particularly post-pandemic.

The Herald:

“We’re still to find out the full effect of lockdown isolation but we know it has affected younger children at key developmental stages.

“It’s such a crucial time in your life and to be isolated, to have your school life basically moved on to a stream – with all the other factors which influence their health and wellbeing like climate anxiety, social media, the amount of screen time they’re exposed to - it’s no surprise that the effect when you add it all up is that more young people are struggling in terms of their behaviour than before.”

NHS Scotland treats assesses and treats young people with emotional, behavioural or mental health difficulties through a service called Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

For the period from April to June 2023 there were 9,525 referrals, an increase of 3% on the same period in 2022.

The Scottish Government sets a target for 90% of children and young people to begin treatment within 18 weeks of referral, but for the most recent quarter this figure stood at 73.8%.

Across NHS Scotland 13.2% of patients waited 19-35 weeks to begin treatment, 5.2% between 36 and 52 weeks and 2.8% waited a year or more.

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Wait times can be longer in rural areas. While 82% of patients in the Western Isles started treatment between 0 and 18 weeks – higher than the national average – 11.5% waited more than a year, almost exactly the same as in NHS Highland (81.6% and 11.3% respectively).

In Shetland 75.4% of patients began treatment within 18 weeks, 15.4% from 19 to 35 weeks, 7.7% from 36 to 52 weeks and 1.5% waited more than a year.

Another issue faced is referrals to CAMHS being rejected. A child or young person would be referred to the service by a professional such as a GP or teacher, but there are cases where it’s determined that the level of support needed would be better served at a lower level.

Mr Burke says: “I think we need to increase capacity in the layers before CAMHS. If people are being rejected it means that CAMHS feel they don’t have a role at that stage.

“We need more support and interventions at an earlier time: we say young people should ask once and get help fast.

“For a lot of children and young people that could be about accessing digital supports – particularly in rural areas – or accessing support through their schools which is where they are most of the time.

“I really welcome the funding for school counsellors, if we didn’t have that you’d probably see the referrals to CAHMS would have increased even further, which would mean even longer waits.

“Clearly if some referrals are being rejected something else needs to be looked at.”

Across NHS Scotland as a whole 25% of referrals are rejected, but the rates can vary hugely by health board.

For the most recent quarter there were no rejections in Greater Glasgow & Clyde, Grampian, Orkney or Shetland, while just 41 of the 3,507 referrals in Lanarkshire were rejected (1.2%).

However, in Tayside close to 20% of referrals were rejected (459 of the 2,071 referrals), while the figure stood at 11.2% for Fife, 9.7% for the Borders, 4.9% for Ayrshire & Arran and 4.7% for the Western Isles. NHS 24 referrals were rejected 13.2% of the time.

While there may be a temptation for adults to say that proper discipline in the classroom is all that’s needed, Mr Burke believes it’s not that simple.

He said: “I’d argue if we’re going to support better behaviour in schools we need to look at that drives behaviours in the first place.

“The response should be to work with them and support them rather than do things to them.

“It’s 2023, we’re in a country that promotes the rights of the child. We know, basically, that in society punishment is not a way to effect longer term behavioural change.

“As adults if we change our behaviour it takes time, it’s not an easy thing to do – so the answer with children and young people is that of course they need a safe environment, of course they need clear boundaries, they need to know what the expectations are – but when things are not going well we either punish them, which I think is counterproductive, or we work with them to improve the situation.

“It’s a big issue, there are no quick fixes to anything and most things that need attention take resources, time and finance.

“That’s why it’s always difficult, but you’ve got to channel what we’ve got into the right places – let’s do things that will actually help.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "It is vital that children and young people receive the right support at the right time. To enable early intervention and prevention, we have invested £45 million in the last three years to provide community-based mental health support for children, young people and their families. Local authorities report that 45,000 people accessed those services between July and December last year alone. In addition, counsellors are available through schools across Scotland, backed by £16 million in funding per year, so children are able to have their mental health needs met earlier.

“The Education Secretary has been clear that schools should be safe and consistent learning environments for all, and that no teacher or support assistant should face violence or abusive behaviour at work. A multi-year plan is in development to tackle instances of challenging behaviour, working with local authorities who employ our support assistants and our trade unions.”