The government is increasingly making children’s mental health a priority. A new green paper has pledged £300m towards better provision in schools and colleges, including preventive support and wellbeing education, and better training for school staff. As a school chaplain and a social worker in mental health services, I feel that this is overdue and much needed. Around half of all mental illness starts before the age of 14, and over the last few years there has been a worrying increase in the number of under-18s being referred to mental health services.
The news is welcome for Catholic schools, which already emphasise solid pastoral care. As the second largest provider of education in England and Wales we currently support 852,321 young people each day. I have seen some wonderful examples of support in Catholic schools: as well as my own work, my school can call on a support mentor, a school counsellor and teaching staff who are specifically dedicated to pastoral care. That range of support can give us an important voice in contributing to national policy.
However, we also need to be aware of some of the possible challenges that this green paper may bring. Any pastoral support which we offer in our schools should be rooted in Christ and consistent with the teaching of the Church. Outside agencies and voluntary groups may offer good support but they will work to their own values and standards, which may not always reflect Catholic social and moral teaching. Now is the time to develop mental health support which is rooted in the Church.
I work each week with a number of students (individually or in group work) who face difficult situations: bereavement, low self-esteem, relationship difficulties and all manner of other challenges. I bring to this my training as a social worker, but it is also crucial to put prayer, faith and hope at the centre of what we do. Placing Christ at the centre of therapeutic support is not something which we should see as an optional extra.
For instance, in my work with students who suffer from low self-esteem, exploring their value in relation to God the creator can be transformative. Likewise, reflecting on eternity – something no purely secular approach can offer – can help children after a bereavement. When encountering young people who self-harm, thinking about aspects of the Theology of the Body should become part of an ongoing therapeutic process. I am not unique: within many of our Catholic schools we are already working to tackle the issues which the green paper seeks to address.
Many, no doubt, will argue that faith should have no place in mental health support. They might reflect that one of the most significant forms of therapeutic support ever developed is the 12 Step programme, used by Alcoholics Anonymous and others working with addiction. Millions of people’s lives have been transformed from addiction to sobriety through participation in 12 Step groups. Although not specifically Christian, the programme asks the participant “to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”, to pray, and to “admit to God…the exact nature of our wrongs” and call on His help.
Most schools now have significant numbers of pupils who no longer practice the faith; many of those will come from families where relationships are highly fragmented. The lives of most young people are so far from the Church and parish community life. This presents us with an opportunity for evangelisation and sharing Christ’s love. For many young people, their school will be the chief place of consistency, sanity and stability in their chaotic lives. Developing good pastoral care therefore becomes central to our preaching the Gospel to the poor, and offering the hope of Christ to our increasingly secular and broken society.