Counselling sessions improve long-term mental health in primary-school-aged children, according to a new study.
Experts said the research has implications for reversing declining mental health in young people in a Covid-19 era.
A team from the University of Exeter and the University of Cambridge worked in partnership with Place2Be to assess the longer-term impact of its school-based service.
The study assessed the impact of Place2Be’s programme, in which trained counsellors operated in 171 schools nationwide in the academic year 2015/16.
Under the scheme, children could self-refer to the counsellors for any reason, or be referred by parents or teachers.
Researchers analysed data on 740 children who took up one-to-one counselling, collected before the counselling started, after the sessions finished, and approximately one year after this.
The children did not have to have mental health disorders to take up the counselling.
A comparison with children who were being seen by NHS mental health services indicated that they had similar levels of poor mental health.
The research used data from a questionnaire completed by teachers and parents.
One year later, this data showed that the children who spoke to counsellors had considerably better mental health than a comparative group of children who had poor mental health yet had not seen a counsellor.
Lead author Dr Katie Finning, of the University of Exeter, said: “We know that children’s mental health is deteriorating, while access to child and adolescent mental health services is decreasing.
“Our research indicates that children who have access to a counsellor at primary school see benefits to their mental health over the longer term compared to children who don’t.
“School-based counselling could help address the urgent need to support children’s mental health, and could help reduce pressure on oversubscribed child mental health services.”
Previously published research has concluded that Place2Be’s counselling intervention has economic benefits resulting from higher employment output and lower spending on public services, amounting to over £5,700 per child.
This amount was based on the intervention having short-term benefits that faded more quickly than the new research suggests.
The savings per child are likely to be an under-estimate, given the new finding that benefits are longer-term.
Research supervisor Professor Tamsin Ford, from the University of Cambridge, added: “We’ve previously found that children’s mental health has worsened during the pandemic.
“We need to prioritise the provision of evidence-based mental health support in schools.
“Early intervention at this young age, before mental health problems become entrenched in adolescence and young adulthood, may help to prevent the long-term impacts of childhood mental health problems.”
– The paper, Longer-term Effects Of School-based Counselling in UK primary schools, is published in the journal European Child And Adolescent Psychiatry.