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The Role of Schools in Supporting Students’ Mental Wellbeing

The Role of Schools in Supporting Students’ Mental Wellbeing

Over the course of their education, children spend over 7,800 hours at school. With such a huge amount of time spent in the classroom, schools provide an ideal environment for promoting good emotional wellbeing and identifying early behaviour changes, signs of mental distress and the early signs of poor mental health.

Over 50% of mental illnesses start before the age of 14, and at least one in six children and young people aged 7 to 16 years have a probable mental health disorder; this is around five children in every classroom. This increases to one in four for young people aged 17 to 19 years who are coping with the challenges of a mental health disorder. 

The COVID-19 pandemic crisis, and the implementation of containment measures such as school closures and social distancing, has not only amplified the pre-existing mental health problems of children and young people in the UK but may also bear some responsibility for the increase in poor emotional wellbeing and mental health issues in the current generation of children and young people. During the lockdown, children spent significantly more of their school time on their own, using screens, and less time physically attending school, which resulted in them participating in fewer physical activities, and interacting and socialising less with their peers and school and teaching staff. All of which has led to increases in boredom, frustration and loneliness, which in some children has manifested in irritability, restlessness, anger, anxiety, sadness or psychological distress. 

To date, only a few studies have investigated the impact of COVID-19 lockdown on children’s and adolescents’ mental health; however, a study conducted by Place2Be and the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) reported that the impact of the COVID pandemic was being felt in schools. 95% of school leaders, teachers and other staff working in primary and secondary schools reported that they had witnessed increased levels of pupil anxiety, and many have seen an increased prevalence of other mental health issues among pupils this school year (2022), including:

  • 86% noted an increase in low self-esteem
  • 76% said they’d seen an increase in depression
  • 68% witnessed an increase in sustained feelings of anger

For staff working in secondary schools:

  • 72% have noticed an increase in self-harm
  • 61% have noticed an increase in suicidal thoughts
  • 56% have noticed an increase in eating difficulties among pupils

When it comes to school attendance, children with a probable mental health condition were seven times more likely to have missed more than 15 days of school. These statistics highlight the importance and urgency of schools needing to take an active role in providing interventions and support to their pupils to improve their wellbeing and mental health.

Recognising the need for support of mental health

Recognising the need for support

Since 2020, the UK government has been publishing annual data on the prevalence of diagnosable mental health issues in children and young people. There has been a substantial increase from 2017, when prevalence stood at about one in eight. Despite additional government funding to address post-pandemic challenges, these figures highlight that the increase in mental health problems seen during the pandemic continues to affect young people today.  

The prevalence of mental health problems varies by age. Mental health issues are least prevalent in younger children aged 8 to 10 at 15.7%, and decreased in this group for a second consecutive year. The prevalence of mental ill health was highest in 17- to 19-year-olds, 23.3% of whom are estimated to have a mental health disorder. This year’s data also shows that mental health issues among teenagers remain higher than before the pandemic.  

In recent years, there has been a growing concern regarding the impact of mental health issues in the education of young people aged between 5 and 18. When looking at the correlation between mental health, academic attainment and being persistently absent from school, unsurprisingly the HeadStart partnership found that, on the whole:

  • As mental health difficulties increased, being absent from school increased.
  • As the level of mental health difficulties increased, attainment results decreased.

A Mind report examining the mental health impact on education and achievement, Not making the grade, identified that:

  • 96% of young people said their mental health had affected their schoolwork at some point. This was strongly supported by school staff, who nearly all agreed (95%) that a lot of students or some students had their schoolwork or learning affected by mental health problems.
  • Attending school was a significant challenge for young people. Nearly seven in ten (68%) reported being absent from school due to their mental health. Some described how their mental health deteriorated after they were punished for being unable to attend school, while not being provided with effective mental health support.
  • 48% said they’d been punished for behaviour caused by their mental health and 25% of school staff said that they were aware of a student being excluded from school because of their mental health.

An estimated 8,000 children and young people are permanently excluded from school in England every year. While young females were at a greater risk of being disciplined for behaviour related to mental health, young males were more likely to have been excluded. A 2017 report found that young people who have been excluded from school are ten times more likely to have poor mental health and the Timpson Review of School Exclusions in May 2019 confirmed that pupils with poor mental health are more likely to be excluded. Those who were excluded also had lower scores for positive wellbeing, emotional strengths and skills and support networks. Pupils with depression, anxiety, ADHD and autism spectrum conditions are more at risk of exclusion. 

Schools have an important and urgent role to play in promoting and supporting the positive mental health and wellbeing of pupils, with the prevalence of mental health issues a growing concern, and alarming statistics such as those above revealing a significant rise in the challenges that schools face. 

All schools have a statutory duty of care to their pupils, which means the school has to do what is reasonably practicable to ensure they care for their pupils, as any reasonable parent would do. This duty is usually reflected in a structured support system for pupils’ wellbeing, both physical and mental wellbeing. This means that if a pupil is experiencing mental health difficulties, they should be able to speak to a designated member of staff and, depending on the seriousness of the mental health difficulty, this member of staff can either speak to the pupil themselves or refer them to the designated safeguarding lead who can call upon more specialist help.

Creating a supportive school culture

Creating a supportive school culture

A child spends a considerable proportion of their formative years in the school environment so it is no surprise that a school’s psychosocial and physical environment will have a significant impact, either positively or negatively, on their wellbeing and mental health. 

A school’s culture includes the shared beliefs, attitudes and values of all the stakeholders in a school, as well as the relationships between school staff, students and families. There are many elements that influence a school’s culture such as its policies, practices, the way stakeholders appreciate and interact with each other, and how the safety and wellbeing of all parties are looked after. An influential aspect of school culture is the attitude that those within the school community express on a daily basis. This is why it is important to take a whole-school approach to create a more sustainable model for promoting an open culture around wellbeing and mental health.

Schools have long been recognised as a key influence on children and young people’s health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma that surrounds mental health. When people don’t feel able to talk about their struggles, feelings of shame can arise. To help reduce this stigma, schools need to raise awareness of mental health, encourage conversations and promote healthy role modelling. 

Encouraging awareness, openness and conversations about mental health in schools can:

  • Promote self-care and physical wellbeing
  • Encourage students to talk about their feelings
  • Build self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Foster a school culture of empathy and acceptance
  • Reduce bullying and school violence

There are a number of initiatives that schools can adopt to promote mental health and wellbeing, and that highlight empathy, kindness and inclusivity within schools. Some of these include:

  • Appointing Wellbeing Ambassadors – Embedding a whole-school culture of wellbeing doesn’t happen overnight, but a good basis to start from is building supportive and respectful relationships between students, teachers and parents. A great way to do this is by appointing student and staff Wellbeing Ambassadors to create a supportive environment where students can talk openly about how they are feeling.
  • Encouraging mental health literacy – Mental health is often not talked about enough in schools because of the stigma around it. One of the best ways to combat some of the misconceptions around mental health is through education and training. The more the school community knows about and understands mental health and wellbeing the easier it will be to talk about and to instil a culture of inclusivity.
  • Introducing mindfulness-based interventions in the classroom – Mindfulness is proven to have a profound impact on our overall wellbeing, with studies showing the positive effects of meditation such as reduced stress and anxiety, improved memory and focus, better relationships and reduced emotional and physical pain.
  • Planning a Wellbeing Day or Week – This is a great way to raise awareness of the importance of wellbeing and mental health issues, and promoting empathy, kindness and inclusivity. These could be scheduled to coincide with national awareness days or weeks such as:
    – 27th January: Parent Mental Health Day – This was established by the charity stem4 which supports teenagers and young adults to build positive mental health
    – 2nd February: Time to Talk Day – This is a vital initiative focused on encouraging open conversations about mental health
    – 20th March: International Day of Happiness
    – 2nd April: World Autism Awareness Day
    – 13th–19th May: Mental Health Awareness Week fighting for the rights of people living with mental illness
    – 24th May: World Schizophrenia Day
    – 27th June: National P.T.S.D. Awareness Day
    – 10th September: World Suicide Prevention Day
    – 10th October: World Mental Health Day
    – 13th November: World Kindness Day
  • Creating safe spaces in school – This consists of setting aside some dedicated time once a week during form or tutor groups which creates a safe space for students to share what they are going through that promotes a culture of no judgement from their peers.

Promoting a supportive culture of staff and student wellbeing is essential to a healthy school, and implementing focused initiatives can help to achieve this.

Educating and training school staff

Schools are in an excellent position to support young people’s mental health and recent surveys suggest that the vast majority of teachers and school staff see supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing as a priority. However, many don’t feel confident helping students with their mental health or have not received relevant training in the last 12 months. 

Promoting good mental health in schools is as essential as addressing mental health disorders. Mental health training gives teachers, counsellors and other school staff the knowledge to foster a whole school environment that encourages positive mental health, as well as the ability to identify any signs of poor mental health and wellbeing early, and to facilitate timely intervention and support, all of which is crucial for the wellbeing of their students.

Mental health education and training for teachers, counsellors and other school staff should provide clear and consistent knowledge and understanding of young people’s mental health needs, and the role of the school in supporting these. It should also provide knowledge and understanding of how to enhance their own wellbeing, so that they are able to support students struggling with mental health issues more effectively.

Typical mental health topics that can provide this knowledge and understanding of young people’s mental health can include, but are not limited to:

The Department for Education (DfE) is offering a grant of £1,200 for eligible state-funded schools and colleges in England to train a senior mental health lead to develop and implement a whole school or college approach to mental health and wellbeing. This training is not compulsory, but it is part of the government’s commitment to offer this training to all eligible schools and colleges by 2025. The training programme covers:

  • Leadership and management that champions efforts to promote and support mental health and wellbeing, and that brings about strategic change to deliver an effective whole school or college approach in settings.
  • Identifying needs and monitoring the impact of interventions to understand and plan appropriate responses to pupils’ and students’ mental health and wellbeing needs.
  • Targeted support and appropriate referrals to ensure children and young people can get timely and appropriate support.
  • Staff development to support their own mental wellbeing, and that of pupils and students.
  • Creating an ethos and environment that promotes respect and values diversity.
  • Enabling the Student Voice so that the voice of every learner is heard and valued, and influences decisions.
  • Working with parents, families and carers so that everyone works as a genuine team around pupils and students, with a consistency of approach and shared aims and strategies.
  • Curriculum, teaching and learning to promote resilience and support social and emotional learning.

Investing in mental health training not only benefits students but also contributes to the professional growth, and continuous development, of teachers, counsellors and other school staff, as well as contributing to their own mental wellbeing.

Accessible mental health resources

Accessible mental health resources

Mental health and wellbeing resources help to signpost pupils and students to appropriate support, help and advice. They also provide sources of mental health and wellbeing support for teachers and others in contact with children and young people. These resources may come in the form of, for example, information, advice, support services and training.

Amongst these resources, the government have collated some useful links and sources of support for teachers to ensure that pupils and students get the advice and help they need.

Public Health England as part of their mental health campaign Every Mind Matters offers a free online action plan, approved by the NHS, that can provide teachers and school staff with personalised, practical tips to help them to take care of their own mental health.

Public Health England also provide resources to help teachers incorporate mental health and wellbeing into their lessons. These include:

Stem4 offers free teaching resources for Key Stages 3 and 4 that cover topics such as anxiety, stress and depression to empower students with knowledge about mental health.

The Education Hub is a site for parents, pupils, education professionals and the media that captures all you need to know about the education system. You will find accessible, straightforward information on popular topics such as mental health resources, Q&As, interviews, case studies, and more.

The Classroom Wellbeing Toolkit is a unique new resource for secondary school teachers concerned about the signs of poor mental health that they see in their classrooms every day, and want to do more to help. Created in partnership with the Anna Freud Centre, the Toolkit is a free, easy-to-use and evidence-based resource, designed to provide secondary school teachers who may not have a mental health background or in-depth training, with practical advice on how they can support young people’s mental health and wellbeing through their daily interactions.

NHS England has rolled out 398 Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) within schools and colleges to provide early support to young people with mild to moderate mental health issues, covering 35% of pupils and learners in further education. A further 200 teams are currently in training and due to become operational by Spring 2025, which would ultimately cover five million (over 50%) of the country’s pupils and learners. MHSTs are designed to support all types of education settings, but support is being targeted in the areas where there is the greatest need and the ability to establish teams effectively.

Another resource that schools can invest in is that of a school counsellor. School counsellors act as a bridge between students, teachers and parents, allowing the three to communicate with each other in a way that’s productive and meaningful to a student’s progress. They’re also key in helping students learn how to manage their emotions as they work with them to develop effective coping skills for dealing with stress and anxiety. They have a pivotal role in helping students and schools achieve academic success. 

School counsellors have had training in conflict resolution, crisis management and communication, and are generally responsible for providing a safe space for students. A school counsellor is important in helping students to resolve conflict peacefully because they are responsible for offering a neutral space to discuss the conflict, listening to both sides of the story and helping the students involved to come up with a plan for moving forward. They are often the first point of contact for students who are having problems, meaning they can help get them the necessary support they need through their resources and connections.

Educational psychologists work with schools in a variety of ways, either through Local Authority Educational Psychology Services, or via independent providers. They also work with other support services within a local authority’s Children and Young People’s Services (CYPS) to support children and young people’s learning and social and emotional development. They can work with an individual child, a class, a group, or a whole school when there is a concern. A school will ask for a consultation with an educational psychologist if they are concerned about a child’s general learning, behaviour or emotional development. 

An educational psychologist will have been trained in child development, the psychology of learning and teaching, children and young people’s emotional wellbeing and the psychological aspects of educating children with special educational needs. Training will also have been undertaken in how groups function, how people communicate and maintain relationships as well as assessment, problem-solving, counselling, treatment, research and training others.

NHS Mental Health Helplines are available for urgent help. The NHS 24-hour advice and support line is available to speak to a mental health professional.

Papyrus (Prevention of Young Suicide)  HOPELineUK 0800 068 41 41 provides confidential advice and support for young people who feel suicidal and has published a guide for teachers and staff.

Councils have a range of responsibilities in relation to children and young people’s mental health. They also have a key leadership and delivery role in promoting good mental health and wellbeing in local communities. Councils also have a crucial role in supporting schools, coordinating across local communities and working alongside health to ensure children and young people have access to services that work for them. Despite a changed relationship with schools, local authorities should be seen as part of the jigsaw in the delivery of this support.

Mental health education

Mental health education

Equipping schools with adequate resources and training to educate students on mental health can genuinely have a positive effect on the wellbeing of children and young people. Mental health education is crucial in schools because it helps to create a healthy and supportive learning environment that promotes academic and personal success. In 2019, the UK government announced the introduction of a new compulsory subject – Relationships, Health and Sex Education (RSHE) – and RSHE as a subject became compulsory in September 2020 and is taught in both primary and secondary education, although there are differences. The subject is split into two sections: physical health and mental wellbeing, and relationships.

The physical health and mental wellbeing area of RSHE covers:

  • Mental wellbeing, which teaches students about the importance of mental health, how to talk about their feelings and where to seek help
  • Internet safety and harms, which focuses on topics like cyberbullying, how to behave online, how internet use can affect body image, and online relationships
  • Healthy eating
  • Drugs, alcohol and tobacco, including the impact drug use can have on mental health
  • Health and prevention, which touches on the importance of good sleep for mental wellbeing
  • Basic first aid
  • Changing adolescent body, which covers the emotional changes children and young people may experience as they grow

Mental health education can help students understand their emotions, thoughts and behaviours and this self-awareness is essential for recognising and managing their mental health needs. There are many ways that information about mental health and wellbeing can be integrated across the curriculum and throughout school culture. However, the emphasis should always be on developing students’ knowledge, understanding, skills, language and confidence to seek support, as needed, for themselves or others. They should understand when to seek help, what help is available, and the likely outcome of seeking support. 

Teaching stress management and integrating stress-reduction techniques into the curriculum can empower students with coping skills. This is particularly important at times of, for example, examinations when many students feel anxious. Teaching about healthy living practices such as the importance of healthy eating, exercise, movement and mindfulness, and getting enough sleep, as well as topics such as resilience, problem-solving, coping with change and connecting with others, equip children and young people with the knowledge and skills to look after their own and others’ mental wellbeing.

When children and young people learn about mental health and mental wellbeing, it helps to remove any stigma attached to the topic and empowers them to freely talk about their feelings and to seek help if they feel that they need it.

Peer support programmes

Peer support is an umbrella term and can be a variety of things in a school setting, such as helping a friend or classmate to discuss their problems, buddying and befriending schemes, 1:1 and group support sessions, or mentoring, but they all involve both giving and receiving support.

Peers are students’ friends, classmates or other young people, such as older students either from the school or from other schools. As peer support can be face to face or online, it can encompass peers from a wide area, utilising the knowledge and experiences of a diversity of students. What the peers have in common is that they are nearer to the students’ own age than school staff, and they are able to help to support their peers and help to promote emotional wellbeing. Peer support schemes use trained students to prevent and respond to mental health issues and to promote a culture of positive mental health and wellbeing.

Many students feel much more comfortable opening up and discussing their emotions, feelings and mental wellbeing with someone from their own generation who can identify with their feelings and who may have shared their experience rather than someone that they view as an authority figure, which is why the concept of peer support is popular amongst young people. 

Peer support schemes have existed in schools for some time now to combat bullying and to help children make the move from primary to secondary education. They make people feel less alone and in the company of somebody who has first-hand, lived experience of their situation. So, providing peer support schemes for mental wellbeing in schools is a natural development of the initiative. Some of these initiatives include:

  • Buddy schemes – These appear to be amongst the most popular peer support schemes in schools. They provide targeted social and emotional support to vulnerable students. Peer buddies can be drawn from the student’s own class group or be from older year groups; however, all buddies should be trained in areas such as mediation skills, listening skills and confidentiality before embarking on the role, and they should be supervised and supported by a designated member of school staff.
  • Peer mentoring – These are most popular in the secondary education sector, although some primary schools use mentors too, often drawn from students at neighbouring secondary schools. Peer mentors support the emotional and academic wellbeing of younger students and provide an empathetic ear for younger students who may prefer to talk to someone close to their own age rather than an adult. Peer mentors should be trained in areas such as empathy, listening skills, confidentiality, access to information and advice, and when to refer on to an adult. They should be supervised and supported by a designated member of school staff.
  • Peer support groups – These are usually groups run by students for students under the supervision and support of a designated member of school staff, and they are usually popular in secondary school settings. Trained students often run and facilitate lunchtime sessions exploring topics such as dealing with stress, healthy eating, self-awareness, problem-solving etc. Some invite in guest speakers from, for example, mental health charities, to contribute to the session. The key to the success of peer support groups is to encourage young people’s ownership of the initiative so that they collaborate, co-design and co-produce programmes targeted at their peers and their needs.

Peer support schemes do require a significant amount of school staff time to initially set up, train the students involved, and provide support to buddies, mentors and/or group facilitators with any safeguarding concerns. It is beneficial to have an identified lead with the capacity to run the peer support scheme and be the designated point of contact, advice and support, as this will contribute to the success of the initiative overall.

Only a small number of studies have been carried out to measure the effectiveness of mental health peer support schemes in schools; however, they do indicate that they potentially result in a range of positive outcomes for young people such as:

  • Increased happiness and wellbeing
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Confidence and emotional resilience
  • Improved social skills and relationships
  • Positive impact on the school environment
Promoting physical activity and wellbeing

Promoting physical activity and wellbeing

Physical activities can play a distinctive role in how children and young people develop, both physically and mentally, and can play a big part in supporting their emotional wellbeing and mental health. The benefits of physical activity and exercise for mental health can include:

  • Improves sleep. Taking part in regular moderate exercise can relieve tension leading to a restful night and improved sleep.
  • Lowers risk of depression by up to 30%.
  • Improves mood. Exercise can release endorphins, sometimes called feel-good hormones, that can lift mood.
  • Reduces stress and anxiety. Physical activity releases cortisol which helps us manage stress. Being physically active also gives the brain something to focus on and can be a positive coping strategy for difficult times.
  • Increases self-esteem. The sense of achievement that people can get from exercising or learning a new skill can help them feel better about themselves and improve their mood.
  • Improves social connections. Taking part in physical activity can allow a person to connect with more people and make new friends.

It is so important that schools help students to develop the skills and resilience to deal with any issues or problems that they may encounter, and to help them to look after their mental wellbeing. Extracurricular activities can be a key tool for any school to use to help achieve this. There is now a growing body of research that is telling us that being active and participating in extracurricular activities drastically reduces the probability of mental health issues as it provides opportunities for community involvement, as well as a platform for developing mental resilience.

It is important to offer a range of activities apart from sports, particularly to include students who are less interested in sport. Activities such as Pilates, yoga and mindfulness may be more appealing to less sports-orientated students, and they all have a positive impact on mental wellbeing as they help to:

  • Relieve stress, anxiety and depression
  • Treat sleep issues and insomnia
  • Reduce negative emotions
  • Instil positive habits
  • Calm and sharpen the mind

The NHS offers physical activity guidelines for:

Although organising and managing an extracurricular programme can be very time consuming, the benefits to students’ physical and mental wellbeing are immense. They also help to build a sense of community within the school setting, and enhance the school’s positive culture.

Parental involvement and communication

Developing a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing must involve engaging widely with all members of the school community and should be a key part of a school’s mission and values. This engagement includes the involvement of parents and carers and building important links between home and school. 

Schools working together with parents and carers has been shown to have a positive impact on the wellbeing, attendance, behaviour, sense of school belonging, intellectual development and attainment of children across a range of social and economic backgrounds and parent/carer engagement is very important for students of any age.

Schools often use various communication strategies to engage parents and carers including newsletters, apps and face-to-face events such as parent evenings or coffee mornings and many schools have found it effective to implement several different routes of communication. For example, a secondary school set up a parent portal on their website with a section devoted to mental health and wellbeing with downloadable resources and up-to-date information on making NHS referrals to specialist children and young people’s mental health services.

When the process of engaging families in supporting mental health initiatives in the school setting works well, there are a number of benefits to be gained, including improved communication routes between families and schools that can help to identify and provide support to students who may be experiencing issues.

Final thoughts

Schools are essential in building a resilient, mentally healthy community and the overall culture of the school should be developed to support children and young people’s physical and mental wellbeing. 

With one in six school-age children in England having a probable mental disorder, this has never been more important or urgent. Kadra Abdinasir, strategic lead at the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, has recently stated that “It is more important than ever that mental health and wellbeing is put at the heart of education”.

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About the author

Luke Bell

Luke joined the team in February 2024 and helps with content production, working closely with freelance writers and voice artists, along with managing SEO. Originally from Winchester, he graduated with a degree in Film Production in 2018 and has spent the years since working in various job roles in retail before finding his place in our team. Outside of work Luke is passionate about gaming, music, and football. He also enjoys watching films, with a particular love of the fantasy and horror genres.

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