Helen Ford,  Lead for Children’s Mental Health, NHS Gloucestershire CCG, explains how Gloucestershire is leading the way in looking after the mental wellbeing of its children and young people.

Looking after the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people across our county is a huge priority for Gloucestershire ICS, and I’m delighted to be part of a team that is already making a big difference to the lives of thousands.

For the last few years we have been working hard to bring together all the different organisations that play a role in looking after children and young people and creating programmes that really work.

One of the strongest messages we would continually receive from our stakeholders was that there was not enough early intervention and awareness when it came to children’s mental health. The focus was very much on helping those already in crisis, or with a serious condition, rather than looking at ways we could prevent things from escalating to this stage in the first place.

Over the past few years we’ve been working together with schools, the local authority, and the voluntary and community sectors to change this.

This programme of work has included link workers going in to schools to help give advice and guidance to staff, building up the skills of the teaching workforce to help them to feel more comfortable and confident in dealing with mental health issues among their pupils.

We’ve also done a lot of work around developing what we call a “whole school approach” to mental wellbeing, shifting the culture of schools to be more mental health aware. All children are encouraged to talk openly about feelings, to be tolerant and understanding, and equipped with information on where to go if they have concerns and worries about themselves or friends. Support is also given to parents who may need help dealing with their child’s mental wellbeing.

We’re encouraging all schools to take this approach and have already seen 41 become accredited as part of our Mental Health Champions Award scheme, which recognises their commitment to promoting good mental health for all.

After successfully bidding for £5m of government funding last year, we are now in the process of developing this work further. Our next step is to develop four dedicated mental health teams for schools in three areas of the county, which will include qualified health practitioners and representatives from voluntary and community services, going in to schools on a regular basis, providing one clear point of contact for staff and students.

The aim is to be covering 32,000 pupils at 72 educational establishments – a mixture of schools, colleges and special schools – by the end of 2019.

In one of the first schemes of its kind in the UK we are also working with Exeter University to train four education mental health practitioners to be part of these teams.

We want to take the time to provide a programme that really works for schools, children and their parents and carers, so we’re currently trialling the project in ten schools. The feedback we’ve received so far has been great. People love the fact that the whole system is working together. In the past it could often be hard for schools to know who they needed to speak to. Now they really appreciate having one point of contact that can help deal with mental health issues across the spectrum.

Away from the school setting we have also been working hard to develop a number of other useful resources for young people who may have concerns about their mental health, including a dedicated website and online and face-to-face counselling.

Everything we do is informed at every step of the way by what children and young people are telling us. We carry out an annual online pupil survey, which receives around 30,000 responses each year and has been crucial in helping us identify what some of the key issues are and it’s as a direct result of this that we have developed the On Your Mind website, a free and confidential website with access to information on a range of different mental health issues. Since its launch in 2016 the site has had over 20,000 unique visitors.

Expanding the amount of counselling available to children and young people has also been a key part of our work. In an example of our close working with the voluntary sector, we have been working with the charity TIC+ (formerly Teens in Crisis) to develop an online counselling platform, as well as face-to-face sessions, which are available to parents as well as children. We’ve been able to expand this offering over recent years to meet increased demand and, since 2017, more than 1,700 children and young people have been able to benefit from this.

I’m extremely proud of the progress we’ve made in this area and am looking forward to seeing how it develops. From speaking to colleagues across the country, it’s clear we really are leading the way here in having such a system-wide approach. We’ve got amazing partnership working happening here, including the voluntary sector, schools, social care and parents, and it’s great to see everyone working together with the same goal in mind. It gives us a solid base to build on for the future and we will continue to look for new and better ways to support our children and young people to look after their mental health, whatever their level of need.