Recently there has been an increased policy focus on the mental health and wellbeing of young people. Reflected by the Government’s announcement earlier this year of a £79m investment in children’s mental health services, out the larger £500m Mental Health Recovery Plan.

This is due to the recognition that emotional and behavioural problems if left unaddressed, often persist into adulthood, and potentially escalate into severe mental health problems or adverse behaviours, such as substance misuse and/or criminal behaviours. Therefore, especially considering the pandemic, it is essential that quality evidence-based early interventions are delivered to meet young people’s emotional and behavioural needs.

Reviewing the effectiveness of school mental health interventions, the EIF found that cognitive behavioural therapy-based (CBT) interventions successfully reduce the risk of developing symptoms of depression. Although, the success of these early interventions depended upon quality and provision.

Cognitive behavioural therapy-based support could help alleviate the emerging Covid-19 mental health crisis

The EIF report highlighted the role that schools have in teaching social, emotional, and behavioural skills that are a critical determinate to young people's mental health and in supporting them achieve broader positive outcomes in education, work, and life.

Universal school-wide support delivered by teachers, focused on developing social and emotional skills was demonstrated to be highly effective in improving young people's mental health and wellbeing and in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety in the short term.

However, for those already displaying signs of depression, the research showed that universal interventions delivered by teachers are ineffective and that targeted CBT interventions need to be provided by non-teaching professionals, such as by a psychologist or by in-school Mental Health Support Teams.

Additionally, the EIF said that high-quality programmes are critical in achieving positive outcomes. Rather than promoting a one-off event in the school’s calendar, the EIF noted that there needs to be the adoption of a whole-school approach, which combines both the universal and targeted intervention approach, as well as the fostering of a sense of belonging and purpose, and the development of strong connections with local mental health services.

On the other hand, the EIF report found other approaches to addressing young people’s mental health, such as mindfulness and mental health literacy interventions produced inconsistent outcomes.

Other findings include:

  • Bullying prevention interventions are effective, however, interventions designed to prevent cyberbullying are less effective.
  • There is limited evidence on the effectiveness of school-based interventions designed to prevent suicide and self-harm.
  • Violence prevention interventions have a small but positive effect on aggressive behaviour in the short-term.

Dr Jo Casebourne, chief executive, Early Intervention Foundation, said: "The results from this review provide good evidence that enhancing skills such as emotional regulation, communication skills, conflict resolution skills and empathy, is a crucial part of young people's overall development and their ability to achieve in school, work, and life.”

“For some young people, additional support is necessary. Our review found that externally delivered cognitive behavioural therapy-based interventions can have a significant impact on young people’s mental health, in particular on symptoms of depression. These findings are promising and highlight the important role that school-based early intervention can play in meeting young people’s mental health needs.”

“The review also shows that quality of implementation matters. When programmes are implemented with poor quality, they are unlikely to have an impact. This is why teacher training is so important. We need to invest in teacher training that equips teachers with the knowledge and skills to implement programmes with high quality. We’d like to see Gavin Williamson really focus on this as part of the Covid recovery.”

Recommendations for policymakers

The review findings provided insights for policymakers and educators into what works to support young people's mental health and behavioural needs. Consequently, the EIF concluded with a series of recommendations, these included:

  • Schools need to be supported in giving equal priority to mental health as well as academic achievement.
  • Substantial investment in high-quality teacher training and support is needed to implement mental health and behavioural interventions.
  • Schools need to be supported in identifying pupils at risk of developing mental health and behavioural problems.
  • Professionally delivered targeted interventions are needed to support vulnerable pupils better.
  • National policymakers must focus on the implementation of high-quality mental health support in schools.

Emma Thomas, Chief Executive of YoungMinds, commented on the findings of the report: “The pandemic has put extraordinary pressures on young people, and the Government must do all it can to ensure that all schools are equipped to provide evidence-based interventions and to make mental health a priority in everything they do.

“This means making mental health a bigger part of Initial Teacher Training and continuous professional development. It means ensuring accountability systems recognise the importance of wellbeing as much as they do academic performance. And it means guaranteed funding for the full roll-out of Mental Health Support Teams as well as for early intervention services outside schools – including through early support hubs in local communities.”