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To end the stigma around mental health, it is important to raise awareness. Schools are uniquely placed to educate young people on the importance of looking after their mental and emotional wellbeing and teachers must be adequately trained and resourced to do so.
What is mental health?
Mental health refers to a person’s emotional and psychological wellbeing. The state of your mental health will affect the way you think, feel, behave, manage stress, interact with others and react to situations.
Adolescence is a notoriously difficult time, with hormones raging and young people struggling to find their place in the world. It is completely understandable to experience a spectrum of human emotion at this time. If children start to have negative feelings or emotions that are prolonged, severe or have a significant impact on their day-to-day functioning, they might be said to be experiencing a mental health problem.
In the year 2020/21, mental or emotional health was the number one concern for children contacting Childline. With 1 in 4 people experiencing some kind of mental health problem each year in England and 50% of all mental health problems starting by the age of 14, it is more important than ever that we are looking after the psychological wellbeing of our children.
Schools have a key role to play in supporting the mental health of their students.
In the UK, from the age of 5 until at least 16, most young people spend around 39 weeks of the year within an education setting. With so much time spent in school during these formative years, it is important that teachers, teaching assistants and other educators act as positive role models for students.
We have a responsibility to talk openly about mental health to our children and normalise the idea that mental wellbeing is as important as physical wellbeing; young people require a support network that consists of their family, school and the wider community.
There is still a negative stigma attached to mental health and discussing it can be seen as a taboo subject – we all have a responsibility to open up this conversation, and the classroom is a great place to start.
Young people have a lot to cope with in modern society; from the pressure of exams to the pitfalls of social media, the pervasive threat of online bullying, the growing wealth gap, youth unemployment and the general uncertainty around their futures.
Added to this are the recent school closures, lack of consistency with home learning, social isolation and the spectrum of feelings that the global covid-19 pandemic induced. It is not a surprise that mental health problems in children are increasing.
Common mental health problems that school children can experience may include:
- Eating disorders.
- OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).
- ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
For a more detailed overview of mental health problems in children, see our blog.
There are many risk factors that can negatively impact the mental health of children and young people, such as family breakdown, conflict in the home (including abuse/domestic violence), genetic factors, bereavement and addiction issues. However, it is important to note that anyone can experience poor mental health, at any time.
Within the school setting itself, risk factors that need to be managed to protect children’s mental wellbeing include:
- Bullying (including cyberbullying).
- Peer pressure.
- Academic stress/failure/truancy.
- Poor teacher/pupil relations.
- Problems within friendship groups (deviant behaviour, alienation, relationship breakdowns).
- Discrimination (disability, racial, gender, LGBTQ – often inextricably linked to bullying).
Schools can try to manage issues that may arise within the education setting that can lead to poor mental health by creating a positive culture within the school, reinforcing positive behaviour from both staff and pupils, outlining a clear policy on bullying and behaviour, and promoting positive relationships between staff and pupils.
It is also vital that staff understand how to recognise children that may be suffering from mental health issues, how to spot the warning signs, their responsibilities around ‘safeguarding’ and that they feel confident in reporting or dealing with these issues.
Mental health problems can manifest themselves in many different ways so it is important for teachers to be able to recognise the warning signs that one of their pupils may need some support. These might include the student appearing withdrawn, losing interest in schoolwork or socialising, emotional or angry outbursts, rapid weight loss or gain, unexplained absences, or changes in appearance/lack of self-care.
Schools in the UK do not necessarily have to publish a dedicated mental health policy for the school, but there is legislation that requires them to publish other policies which are linked to mental health:
- Behaviour and anti-bullying policy.
- Special educational needs (SEN) policy.
- Equality policy.
The above policies must all conform to the 2010 Equality Act which protects people from being discriminated against due to disability, amongst other things. Pupils suffering mental health problems might be considered disabled under the Equality Act, and all schools are obligated not to discriminate on the grounds of disability.
There is some evidence to suggest that looked-after children within the care system or those with SEN are more vulnerable to developing mental health problems. In these instances, there is often some level of involvement from social workers or other professionals. Here, good communication is key and a multi-agency approach is vital to communicate any concerns and deal with them effectively.
Part of the role of the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) in schools should be to ensure staff understand how to deal with pupils who have additional needs, including those with persistent mental health issues. All schools should also have access to local services that can support students who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
The teaching of RSE (relationship and sex education) is now compulsory for all schools. Clear, comprehensive RSE lessons, taught in an age-appropriate way by competent teachers, can be a great way to reinforce what positive relationships look like. They should also provide a safe environment to discuss issues such as LGBTQ relations, consent and body image, which can all have an effect on the mental health of young people today.
Promoting mental health and wellbeing
Alongside their academic provisions, schools are required to provide pastoral care to students. Pastoral care is the way a school looks after the mental and physical welfare of its pupils, and settings that continually evaluate and improve their pastoral care services will usually provide a more positive learning experience to pupils.
Some activities that can provide a mental health boost for children and young people, or provide a healthy alternative to destructive coping techniques include:
- Exercise – Physical activity such as doing sport increases endorphins and boosts mood. It is also a healthy way to reduce stress and anxiety and help people to feel good about themselves.
- Yoga – The gentle stretching, balancing and breathing techniques used in yoga can give a sense of peace and calm to the person practising it, reducing stress and making them feel relaxed. Yoga is sometimes used as a complementary therapy to people suffering depression and anxiety. There is a wide range of videos available online for all age groups – you could set some time aside every week to get students involved or start a lunchtime club.
- Meditation or mindfulness – Taking some quiet time to reflect and be present in the moment instead of focussing on outside influences or stressors can help with mental wellbeing. This would be ideal around the hectic revision periods during exam time.
- Art/music/writing – Encouraging students to use a creative outlet to help them deal with stress or mental health problems they may be experiencing can help them to learn new skills, increase self-esteem and build a sense of purpose.
- Self-care – Talk to students about the importance of getting enough sleep and healthy eating. Tiredness and lack of vitamins has an impact on the brain and negatively affects your general wellbeing. You could get students involved with a cookery class or ask them to bring in items to have a picnic outdoors. Younger children might enjoy designing posters about how to get their five-a-day. Try to find activities that reinforce how physical health is linked to mental wellbeing.
Mental health problems are experienced by many people and learning to deal with stress, disappointment and negative feelings is an important part of growing up to become a healthy, well rounded adult. Teaching these techniques that promote mental wellbeing will empower children and might mean they are less likely to turn to more harmful coping mechanisms in future, such as alcohol, drugs, self-harm, or over or under eating.
How to put support in place
In schools, resources are often overstretched and many teachers complain of being overburdened, working long hours and not always having access to the support that they need to provide the necessary help to pupils. In this instance, it can be helpful to signpost pupils and families to organisations and charities that can offer mental health support to them.
Schools can spread the word about support available in the wider community by:
- Displaying posters on noticeboards around the school (including the staff room).
- Handing out leaflets.
- Sharing posts on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc).
- Adding useful links to their website.
- Putting information about advice and support on the weekly newsletter/e-newsletter that is sent out to parents.
- Arranging for a representative from a specific mental health charity or campaign to either visit the school or speak to pupils via a video link using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet etc.
The most successful education settings are ones that have a supportive head teacher who employs highly trained, well informed staff. Teachers who work in a supportive environment where there is an open door policy to discuss concerns or ask for help are more likely to replicate this model within their own classrooms.
Top five tips for teachers to support students with their mental health:
- Look after your own mental wellbeing – A stressed, burnt out teacher is not going to be an effective role model to students. Keep on top of your own mental health, make time for yourself and set boundaries.
- Stay informed – Get regular training, ask for help when you need it and never be afraid to ask for a second opinion. Seek out or develop useful resources, programmes or data.
- Manage your classroom well – An organised, empathetic teacher who has the respect of their students will be far more approachable than one who is an authoritarian or who is totally chaotic.
- Be tech savvy – The world of technology is constantly evolving, meaning that young people today face threats to their mental health that did not exist a few years ago. A teacher who understands their Facebook timelines from their filters, their Tik Toks from their trolling, is far more equipped to be able to deal with concerns that students have than one who fails to stay informed.
- Be open – Make time for your students (and fellow teaching staff) and be prepared to listen. Try to be calm and non-judgemental. Model good behaviour for your students to see. Promote an ‘open door’ policy.
It is more important than ever before that teachers are trained in how to safeguard their pupils and have the tools on hand to identify, assess and address problems around their students’ wellbeing, be it mental or physical. For more information on drafting a school safeguarding policy, please see our blog.
In response to education restrictions imposed due to coronavirus and the negative effects this has had on learning and wellbeing, a new multimillion-pound package of mental health support has been drafted. The government has committed to providing training to all state schools and colleges by 2025, so they can have a dedicated mental health leader amongst their academic staff.
Schools are now required to teach about mental health as part of their RSE lessons and a further £7 million of funding will become available as part of a new Wellbeing for Education Recovery Programme.
Although this is a positive step forward which suggests that the government are recognising the plight of young people, this support will be phased in slowly and the number of children requiring help with their mental health is likely to far exceed the number of trained professionals available.
From teaching assistants to teachers, sports coaches to head teachers, it is vital that educators use the resources available to them. Whether that means drawing on their own experiences, using online platforms, consulting with charities, or seeking help from their local authority or the wider community – NHS waiting lists are growing and our young people need help with their mental health now.
- Mental health charity MIND has a dedicated online hub for young people aged 11–18, full of useful resources and advice.
- The Children’s Society has a handy A-Z guide for mental health and Wellbeing.
- NHS advice on mental health in young people is available, including advice on when to seek help and useful helpline numbers.
- Your local authority should also be able to provide details of local services that can provide help.
- You can also use the Hub of Hope to search for local services and find someone to talk to.
- If someone is in immediate danger of harming themselves or others, always call 999.