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School Exclusions Are A Symptom Of Our Silent Mental Health Pandemic

By Emmanuel Onapa

The coronavirus has exposed inequalities at the root of our society. Whether that be the disproportionate number of black men being stopped and searched throughout lockdown or the excessive number of black and brown citizens dying from the virus. However, society is still yet to challenge a silent pandemic that is slowly damaging young people’s lives: the link between the mental health crisis and school exclusions.

Young people in Britain have always been overlooked when it comes to their mental health. Amid the global pandemic, this has worsened. Many children were already facing social exclusion due to domestic violence, poverty, youth violence, a lack of resources and so on. The pandemic has caused these heart-breaking traumatic experiences to heighten. Throughout the first lockdown, many of these young people were forced to go through pain in silence. Confined largely to their homes, they had no one to turn to.

A report by charity Young Minds published in Autumn shows that 69% of young people at school described their mental health as poor – a sharp rise from 58% before schools reopened in July. Despite these alarming percentages, many schools haven’t provided adequate provision to support students. Almost a quarter of pupils (23%) said that there was less mental health support in their school than before the pandemic, while only 9% of students agreed that there was more mental health support.

Our leaders are continuing to show idleness in confronting the issue. The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has warned of a potential “spike” in exclusions as children struggle to adjust to the return to school. Some school leaders recently told education regulator Ofsted their rate of fixed-term exclusions was rising “due to not being able to put in place the usual layers of sanction before exclusion” during the pandemic restrictions. It’s crystal clear that schools don’t need excessive exclusions. What they do need is more therapists, counsellors and other forms of mental health support to help our young children express the root causes of their ‘challenging’ behaviour.

Excluding a child will not solve the issues they face outside of school. When they leave the school gates, they still have to face the anxiety of whether or not dinner will be on the table, if they’ll get attacked by a member of a rival neighbourhood, or, whether they’ll be victims of violence in the house they’re supposed to call home. This is the agony many students have to accept. But, with the correctly funded mental health provision, young people no longer have to deal with these issues alone. These resources create a safe space for young students to grieve, mourn and heal from their trauma. Inside and outside the classroom. Providing these services empowers pupils, allowing their voices to be heard and listened to.

When I was in secondary school, the state of my mental health didn’t allow me to easily articulate my issues. I felt misunderstood, isolated and abandoned by everyone including the educational system. Unfortunately at the time, this impacted my grades and resulted in me getting excluded from multiple secondary schools. It’s not until my parents saw fit for me to study in Uganda that things changed. My life course turned for the better. In a privately educated international school, I was able to have the right assistance and care through mental provision to tackle the challenging behaviour I was displaying. This allowed me to flourish. I am now a student at the University of Exeter, one of the best universities in the country. Currently, I use my voice to advocate for a better society through social change as a youth leader for Hackney CVS and campaigns manager for Hackney Account.

The leaders of tomorrow, who will pave the path for progressive change, do not always come from squeaky clean nuclear families. Nor will they come from a history of faultlessness. Our leaders of tomorrow will come from a background of inequality, oppression and marginalisation. They will bring sustainable change to the world we live in. We must create a society for these young leaders to heal from the social challenges that the generation before them failed to solve. This must be done by developing the welfare state, which includes mental health provision for students.

We must also abolish school exclusions during the pandemic. This penalising measure disproportionately impacts black students in comparison to their non-black peers, which simultaneously causes inequality to thrive. It is time for change through radical solutions. We must step up and get organised.

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