Schools see an increase of mental health problems being reported by pupils each year and it is approximated that one in ten children and young people suffer from a recognised mental health problem – three in every classroom. With mental health problems being prevalent in schools, it is essential that there are suitable provisions in place to support those who are in need. This guidance focusses on what schools can do to encourage positive mental health in its pupils, as well as how they can successfully provide support to them.
Encouraging positive mental health
Creating a friendly environment
Schools should aim to create an environment where pupils feel comfortable to approach staff or peers when they have a problem. To achieve a positive learning environment, schools should promote values of respect. This can be achieved by listening to pupils, engaging in conversation and responding appropriately to what has been said. Building a rapport with pupils instils trust. It is imperative that pupils have a trusting relationship with at least one teacher so that any issues a pupil may have can be passed on – confident that they will receive the support they need.
It can be challenging for teachers, particularly NQTs, to fully understand pupils’ behaviour; however, by building up a rapport with them, it will become easier to spot when a pupil displays uncharacteristic behaviour which could be related to mental health problems.
Talking about mental health
Schools should provide pupils with the opportunity to acknowledge that everyone has mental health. Talking about mental health as a concept which is owned by all can not only reduce the stigma which surrounds the term, but also can change pupils’ perceptions on what mental health is. Discussing mental health as a concept rather than an illness can show pupils that it is not something to be embarrassed or ashamed of. Schools can encourage this concept by integrating discussion on mental health in the curriculum, as well as dedicating some lessons to promoting pupil wellbeing, e.g. team games, paired work or group discussions.
Spotting signs of mental health issues early can help pupils get the support they need before the problem escalates. To introduce mental health into the curriculum can be challenging. One point to consider is; what is suitable to teach to each age group? Although everyone can suffer from a mental health problem, there are trends which schools can use to tailor their lesson plans to reach a wide pupil base. One such trend is mental health issues which correspond to a pupil’s age, e.g. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) have found that there are rises in admissions of self-harm in children at age 12. Schools can use this information to discuss the topic prior to it becoming a potential problem for pupils of that age group.
Using trends to tailor lesson plans or activities enables the cohort to be reached, allowing pupils who may be at risk to understand their problem fully and seek help, and continues the promotion of positive mental health.
Care away from the classroom
Pupils who suffer from mental health problems can find the classroom environment or lessons overwhelming. The school should provide a designated safe space for pupils to go to that gives them necessary time out. For EYFS and primary school pupils, rooms such as sensory rooms and calm rooms can positively affect pupils’ emotions, relaxing them and reducing any negative feelings. For secondary school pupils, inclusion or exclusion rooms may be used. These rooms can provide pupils with a space where they feel comfortable to go to unwind or release any negative energy they may be feeling.
Reducing the stigma
The term ‘mental health’ has, primarily, had negative connotations surrounding it. This can be detrimental for schools when trying to provide support to pupils with mental health issues. The negative stigma which surrounds mental health can be reason enough for pupils not to come forward with any issues they may be experiencing. Keeping mental health issues from peers, parents or teachers can be detrimental to pupils’ welfare and other aspects of learning. It is, therefore, important that schools work as a unit to encourage discussion of mental health in a positive, judgement-free environment.
Schools can encourage a positive outlook on mental health in a number of ways including, but not limited to:
- Integrating discussions of mental health in the curriculum, either in dedicated PSHE lessons, assemblies or tutorials.
- Creating specific lesson plans in subjects such as art, RE or PE, which encourages self-expression, interaction with others, and learning about feelings and emotions.
- Training teachers about the benefits of positive mental health so that it can be transposed through teaching, helping pupils to feel more at ease discussing mental health issues.
Identifying a problem
Pupils spend a great deal of time at school and so it is essential that school staff feel confident building a trusting relationship with pupils. Supplying an established trust network to pupils can give them the confidence they need to share with someone that they have a problem. It is a scary thing for a young person to go through and, with the help of the school’s staff, pupils can get the help they require. It is, therefore, essential that staff have a basic understanding of mental health and what the telling signs of a mental health problem are. Schools can refer to the Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) Policy which contains suggested methods for spotting the signs of mental health problems.
Once a pupil has come forward to a member of staff, they should be referred to the school nurse or the school’s pastoral care officer. The school can offer specialist counselling by a trained professional. School-based counselling can cater for the care and support pupils need by reducing emotional stress, increasing emotional resilience and managing difficult situations they may be dealing with. In-school counselling as a first port of call can overcome issues of long waiting lists from external services.
Counselling for EYFS and primary school pupils differs considerably from counselling for secondary school pupils, due to the issues pupils face at a certain age. It is, therefore, important that pupils receive age-specific counselling support. With appropriate counselling, pupils can feel more confident, focus more on their learning and, on occasion, overcome their issues. When school-based counselling is not enough for pupils’ needs, schools should refer pupils to CAMHS. From the point of referral, schools should not withdraw their support fully. Continuous support from the school is important for pupils so that they can continue to progress through their treatment.
Limits of the school
Although it is vital that pupils feel supported throughout an uncertain period of time in their life, schools are not responsible for giving pupils a mental health diagnosis or treatment. It is imperative schools understand that provision of support does not extend to any clinical support. If staff members believe there is cause for concern with a pupil and the school’s pastoral care system feels it is necessary, pupils should be referred to CAMHS, or other NHS or specialist services.
Schools can refer to guidance on Referring a Child to CAMHS if a staff member believes a pupil needs to be referred to a specialist service.
Clinical support is in place for when pupils’ mental health issues require more than pastoral support or guidance. If a pupil’s mental health problems are extensive, treatments, e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy, are available to help overcome their issues. They are often seen as a last resort as waiting lists can be long and so pupils may not receive the urgent care they require. It is, therefore, essential that schools try to intervene as early as possible with pupils’ mental health problems. Early intervention could improve pupils’ mental health before it escalates to a point where referral to an external agency is the only option.
Schools which have policies and guidance in place, outlining signs, symptoms and support for pupils with mental health issues, are more likely to deliver a successful support provision for pupils in comparison with those schools who do not have important documentation.
Staff should be made aware of the school’s Early Years Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Policy, Child Protection and Safeguarding Policy and Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) Policy and any other relevant school documentation with regards to mental health.
Leeds Beckett University (2017) ‘Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools’ <http://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/carnegie-school-of-education/carnegie-centre-of-excellence-for-mental-health-in-schools/> [Accessed: 16 October 2017]
DfE (2016) ‘Counselling in schools: a blueprint for the future’ pg. 17-20
DfE (2017) ‘Supporting Mental Health in Schools and Colleges’
Minds Ahead (N.D) ‘School support’ <https://www.mindsahead.org.uk/school-support/> [Accessed: 16 October 2017]
Minds Ahead (N.D) ‘About’ <https://www.mindsahead.org.uk/about-2/> [Accessed: 16 October 2017]
Minds Ahead (N.D) ‘Centre of Excellence’ <https://www.mindsahead.org.uk/centre-for-excellence/> [Accessed: 16 October 2017]