In this article
Mentally healthy schools are places where everybody’s mental health matters and where emotional and mental wellbeing is an important and public part of school life. At present, having a standalone Mental Health Policy is not a statutory requirement for schools, however, all schools have a statutory duty under “Keeping Children Safe in Education” (KCSIE) to promote the welfare of their pupils.
This involves “preventing impairment of children’s health or development, and taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes”, including their mental health and wellbeing. By creating and implementing a standalone Mental Health Policy, your school is publicly communicating its commitment to supporting the emotional wellbeing and mental health of everyone in the school community.
Some mental health statistics
Children and young people
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) report that one in ten young people experience a mental health issue at any one time and that for those aged between 5 and 19, suicide is the leading cause of death.
Record levels of young people are currently struggling with mental health issues; academic pressure, social media, bullying, poverty, lack of availability of professional mental health support, and the recent COVID pandemic, lockdowns and the isolation of home schooling have all been named by various sources as contributing to this epidemic of poor mental health in young people.
In an average group of 30 15-year-olds:
- Seven have probably been bullied.
- Six may be self-harming.
- One may have experienced the death of a parent or close family member.
The ONS are currently conducting a National Study of Health and Wellbeing: Children and Young People 2021 to update these statistics. Details of how to contribute to this survey.
In the latest (2021) National Education Union’s (NEU) annual State of Education, a survey of 10,000+ school and college staff, found that 78% of respondents thought that mental health issues among children and young people have increased in the past year, with 34% of respondents saying they had “increased greatly”.
Concerns were raised by 66% of respondents that the pressure to prioritise “catch up” following school closures and lockdowns may be at the expense of supporting students with mental health issues.
COVID has also had an impact on teacher mental health. According to NASUWT, the Teachers’ Union, eight in ten (79%) teachers feel their job has adversely affected their mental health in the last 12 months, with 81% of teachers responding to the survey reporting that they have experienced an increase in workplace stress over the past year.
Why is a mental health policy needed?
The above statistics provide powerful reasons for creating and implementing a standalone, relevant and effective Mental Health Policy to promote mental health and wellbeing within your school. Schools have an important role to play, acting as a source of support and information for students, staff and parents/carers.
Mental Health Policies and procedures will empower staff to identify and support students in need of help and guide them to follow appropriate referral pathways and procedures if required. A well-developed and implemented policy can prevent students from falling through the cracks, whilst providing a safe and stable environment for the many students and teachers affected, both directly and indirectly, by mental ill health.
What is a mental health policy?
A Mental Health Policy is an official, public statement made by the school that provides the school’s overall commitment to promoting mental health and wellbeing. It does this by defining a vision, values, principles and objectives, and by establishing a broad model for action to achieve that vision.
The main aim of a Mental Health Policy is to demonstrate to students, staff and parents/carers that the wellbeing of individuals, including students, staff and parents/carers, is a top priority for the school. When a culture of wellbeing is prioritised across the whole school community, positive social norms and behaviour are built between school leaders, staff, teachers, students and parents/carers, and this is woven through everything the school already does.
Writing a mental health policy
Policies and procedures can be straightforward to develop, however, you must first carefully consider the core needs of your specific school. There really is not a “one size fits all” solution in good policy writing. Using a pre-defined template can help to provide guidance to what needs to be included, but the detailed content needs to be tailored to the individual school’s environment.
In writing your policy, you want to develop an effective document that works for your school and your community. Involve students, staff and parents/carers by inviting them to contribute to the content and solicit their feedback on the finished version.
Working with colleagues in similar schools can be really helpful; you can bounce ideas off each other and share experiences. Working in isolation makes no sense when there could be so much to learn from others in similar environments.
The aim is for your policy to publicly state your school’s ethos and to be a “go to” document that staff regularly refer to when they need guidance of what to do next. A good policy should be clear and simple to use. Don’t make it too lengthy, keep it concise, practical and easy to use.
The key sections required in a mental health policy include the following:
- A clear title for the policy – Choose a policy title that works for your school and clearly defines what the policy is all about.
- A policy statement – The policy statement should publicly state the school’s ethos and commitment to promoting mental health and wellbeing. It should acknowledge the school’s responsibilities and summarise what you will do to promote mental health and wellbeing for your students, staff and parents/carers. Explain why mental health and wellbeing is important to the school and include a statement of who was consulted in the development of the policy.
- Purpose of the policy – Explain what the policy sets out to achieve, the aims and objectives. Use clear language so that everyone who reads the policy understands the policy’s principles.
- The policy scope – This should detail all the people the policy applies to. It should also detail all other school policies that the policy should be read and used in conjunction with, for example, but not limited to:
– Safeguarding Policy.
– Health and Safety Policy.
– Equalities Policy.
– Behaviour and Anti-bullying Policy.
– SEND Policy.
– Staff Wellbeing Policy.
- Exceptions to the policy – Detail any exceptions; if there are none, state no exceptions.
- Legal framework – Describe the laws that govern the policy, together with the statutory regulations that apply, for example, but not limited to:
– The Equality Act 2010 which recognises that a mental health condition that adversely affects behaviour amounts to a disability.
– SEND 0-25 years Code of Practice 2015.
– Keeping Children Safe in Education.
– Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
– The Mental Health Act 1983.
– The Coronavirus Act 2020 (Temporary modification of mental health and mental capacity legislation).
– Data Protection Act 1998 and GDPR.
- Definitions – Clearly explain what wellbeing and mental health is. Describe the meaning of any terminology used in the policy within the area of mental health/mental illness, as it can sometimes be quite confusing. This is because terminology is not always used in a consistent manner; “depression” for example, may mean to one person “feeling temporarily low in mood” or to another “feeling completely debilitated and unable to take care of basic physical needs”.
It will also be useful to users of the policy for you to explain some of the symptoms of common mental health problems such as:
- Anxiety – Agitation, significant changes in appetite, headaches, digestive difficulties, or panic attacks. Includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that may be characterised by repetitive memories or flashbacks of a traumatic event.
- Depression – Low mood, lack of motivation, sense of emptiness, change of appetite, disturbed sleep patterns, withdrawal, self-neglect, self-loathing, thoughts of hurting or killing oneself.
- Mania – Elated mood, rapid speech, little sleep, relentless high energy, reckless behaviour, delusions or hallucinations. Mania with depression may also be a feature of bi-polar disorder (also known as manic depression).
- Psychosis – Disordered or paranoid thoughts, delusions, disorganised or strange speech, “hearing voices”, hallucinations, agitated or bizarre behaviour, extreme emotional states.
- Schizophrenia – Schizophrenia is the most common psychotic disorder. In addition to the symptoms of psychosis listed above, this disorder may be characterised by negative symptoms such as social withdrawal, poor personal hygiene and poor motivation.
- Anorexia Nervosa – An eating disorder characterised by extreme fear of being fat, distorted body image, extremely low dietary intake, excessive exercise.
- Bulimia Nervosa – An eating disorder characterised by binge eating, induced vomiting, induced diarrhoea.
- Obsessive-Compulsive – Repetition of behaviours, rituals, checking, ruminating, repetitive thoughts. Intense fear, usually with one focus such as open or confined spaces, heights, rats, spiders, social situations.
The above is not an exhaustive list and you should research and include those definitions that are most appropriate to your specific school setting.
Key people – List all roles and responsibilities within the policy together with their contact details, for example, but not limited to:
- Head Teacher.
- Chair of Governors.
- Executive Policy Owner.
- Operational Policy Owner.
- Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Adviser(s).
- Designated Mental Health Lead.
- Designated Safeguarding Lead.
- Deputy Designated Safeguarding Lead.
- School Nurse and/or First Aider(s)/Mental First Aider.
- External Contacts such as:
– Appropriate statutory services.
– Other agencies involved in the referral of students with significant support needs.
Actions or procedures – How the school will implement the aims and objectives of the policy. Start by outlining some of the warning signs of mental health issues.
One of the key things that all staff can do is to keep an eye out for warning signs that might indicate a student or colleague is experiencing a mental health issue. Highlighting some key warning signs within the context of the school setting can be very helpful to staff and ensure that alarm bells ring at the right time.
Common examples of signs to look out for can include but are not restricted to:
- Attendance issues such as increased absenteeism.
- Punctuality – an increase in lateness for school or individual classes.
- Relationships such as becoming socially withdrawn.
- Approach to learning.
- Negative behaviour patterns such as secretive or disruptive behaviour.
- Recent bereavement.
- Changes in eating / sleeping habits.
- Changes in activity and mood.
- Talking or joking about self-harm or suicide.
- Expressing feelings of failure, uselessness or loss of hope.
- Repeated physical pain or nausea with no evident cause.
Then outline details of the school’s identification system, how the school aims to identify children with mental health needs as early as possible to prevent things getting worse. Detail how the school will identify and manage risk.
Next outline how the school actively supports positive mental health. List all activities the school participates in such as:
- Campaigns and assemblies to raise awareness of mental health.
- Pastoral support.
- Nurture groups.
- Interventions to improve students’ communication skills around dealing with issues, resolving conflict.
- Displays and information around the school about positive mental health and where to go for help and support.
- The school support services that meet the specific needs of your student and staff population.
- How the school will endeavour to make reasonable adjustments to coursework and examinations for students experiencing mental health difficulties.
- Taking time out and/or withdrawal – the process for this for both students and staff.
- Resuming studies or duties following a period of time out and/or withdrawal – the process for this for both students and staff.
- Discipline – the management of potential disciplinary matters in a student or staff member with mental health problems; this will depend on individual circumstances but will need to follow fair process.
Detail here the step-by-step process your school follows when responding to any mental health issue and the school’s process for reporting concerns both within the school and externally if necessary. It can be useful to use a flow-chart diagram to depict this.
- Duty of care statement – How the duty of care owed by a school to the wider student body and to staff takes priority where the behaviour of a student with mental health difficulties causes significant disturbance or distress to others.
- Training – Detail all training you provide to staff to implement this policy and any specialist training provided for the designated mental health lead.
- Confidentiality and record-keeping – Detail how the school maintains confidentiality and how it will comply with data protection law when dealing with mental health information. No doubt should be left about when disclosures should and should not be kept confidential.
- Stakeholder statement – Detail here the Whole School Approach to mental wellbeing and how the school works with students, staff, parents/carers, other support organisations and networks and the wider community.
- Ofsted – Ofsted’s current framework requires Ofsted inspectors to routinely assess and report on pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, demonstrating that the school’s Mental Health Policy and Procedures are effective. The policy should explain that the school is familiar with this framework’s requirements.
- Governance requirements – Specify who is responsible for ensuring the policy is implemented and monitored. Specify who is accountable for ensuring the school complies with its legal obligations contained in the policy, and when the policy will be reviewed and updated, for example:
– The operational owner of the policy.
– The executive owner of the policy.
– The date the policy becomes effective.
– The policy review date.
– Any related documents.
– The document version control – document all review and change requests. Policies are “living documents” and as such need updating when circumstances require, such as changes to the law.
- Communication plan – Think carefully about how to share the policy with colleagues, governors, students, parents/carers and the wider community and list these activities in the policy.
Examples may include but are not limited to:
– Including information about the policy as part of induction for all new staff.
– Introducing the policy as part of a parent/teacher session; leave plenty of time for questions.
– Printing off copies of the policy for staff to browse in the staff room.
– Emailing a copy or direct link to the policy to all staff; do not expect them to find it online.
– Sharing significant points from the policy with students during personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) sessions or tutorials.
– Adding the policy as an agenda item for discussion at your next governing body meeting.
– Putting the policy on your public-facing school website.
– Highlighting the new policy as a news item or blog post on your website.
– Sharing your new policy in a newsletter with parents/carers.
You may find it useful to design different versions of your Mental Health Policy for different audiences and choose to share the information contained in your school’s policy in student and parent friendly versions. These may be abbreviated and simplified, highlighting the key messages and most important information.
Benefits of having a mental health policy
A Mental Health Policy lets everyone in the school community know that emotional wellbeing and mental health are an important part of school life. It helps everyone to know where to find help and support and who to speak to.
Mental health issues can seriously impair academic performance and may lead to confused or disturbed behaviour. Minor difficulties that interfere with a student’s capacity to work may also result in distress, wasted effort and undermine their academic progress.
It is important to create an environment within the school where students and staff who are aware that they have, or have had, emotional or mental health issues, feel that they can share this information with an appropriate member of staff. Schools need to know about these circumstances in order to ensure that reasonable adjustments can be made to enable their students and staff to work effectively.
Creating an open and positive culture that encourages discussion and understanding of emotional and mental health issues will help prevent stigma. Having a publicly recognised Mental Health Policy sends out the message to students and staff that it is OK to talk about mental wellbeing and that your school is there to support them.