By Toni Giugliano, Policy manager, Mental Health Foundation Scotland

THE school environment has a profound impact on a child’s development and emotional health. Half of mental health problems arise by the age of 14. Eating disorders have doubled in a decade. Anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts are on the rise. In turn this has created significant pressure on our support services – with referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) increasing by 20 per cent over the past three years. But we can, and must, turn the tide.

The Scottish Government’s commitment to invest in school counsellors and train teachers in Mental Health First Aid is to be welcomed – this can help school staff identify symptoms and respond in times of crisis. However, we shouldn’t be waiting for children to become unwell before we’re able to offer support.

The focus can’t just be on fixing the problem – we must prevent it from happening in the first place. It’s like saying that if we trained everyone in CPR we’d reduce heart disease mortality. While CPR training does save lives, it’s preventative measures like curbing sugary drinks, the smoking ban and alcohol minimum pricing that tackle the root of the problem. Many of us still haven’t fully understood that, just like physical ill health, common mental health problems can be prevented too.

The truth is, this generation is facing unprecedented pressures to succeed. Our research found that around two-thirds of young Scots are so worried about succeeding in life that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. The school curriculum judges them on academic success and whether they go on to a “positive destination” like an apprenticeship or a place at university.

Simultaneously Instagram and TV programmes like Love Island expect them to have perfect bodies and relationships. Those who brand our kids “the snowflake generation” haven’t tried growing up in 2018. It’s our fragile relationships and unequal society that are largely responsible for their insecurities.

The Mental Health Foundation’s new campaign – Make it Count – calls for health and wellbeing to be just as valued and measured in the school curriculum as literacy and numeracy. As a priority, we need to train teachers to identify problems early and show them how to respond when children seek help.

We’re not asking teachers to become trained counsellors – their workload is already challenging and their own mental health in jeopardy. But it’s so important that they listen and provide advice, because ultimately this is about trust. Our research shows that one-third of children who experience a problem would approach a teacher they trusted for help.

And it would be wrong to suggest that school-based counselling is always the solution. In many cases it isn’t, and the answer lies in strengthening a child’s existing support networks such as family, friends and yes – the school community.

We need classrooms that measure levels of wellbeing to identify problems early. This could be done through questionnaires during Personal and Social Education (PSE) classes that identify low mood, social isolation, low body confidence, sleep quality or adversity. We’ve been measuring numeracy and literacy for decades – it’s time we did the same with wellbeing.

And we need quality PSE lessons that explore the root causes of distress – be it body image, exam stress or relationships, so that we can help young people build resilience and show them how to manage difficult events and situations.

Learning how to look after ourselves is no less important than any other subject. Mental health isn’t extra-curricular – we all have it. Now is the time to place it at the heart of what children learn in schools, and make it count.