Over the past few years, tentative steps have been taken to address how we think about our mental health. Whether it be people in the public eye speaking out about their own struggles, or schools engaging with the topic to a greater extent, there has been a heightened effort to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. Yet, recent statistics from NHS England show one in ten children and one in four adults suffer mental health problems, so there is still such a long way to address this crisis which has impacted so many lives.
A cultural shift in the way we view mental health is much needed. Schools have such an important role to play: the more mental health is talked about, the more normalised and less frightening it becomes. The Government have released a report detailing how they have stepped up funding for mental health provisions in schools with the hope that by 2025 all state secondary schools and colleges will have a trained mental health lead. This is a step in the right direction but there is still lots more to be done.
GCSEPod met up with up with Blue Mental Health Education & Training to discuss some of the best ways to tackle the mental health crisis in schools. Johnny and Becci from BMHET are mental health professionals specialising in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and have worked in the sector for over two decades. They work collaboratively with teachers to develop effective mental health strategies via their bespoke training packages, aiming to improve mental health provision and change culture.
Their key message – that there are things we can do to help children with their mental health – is one that schools should take on board. It may sound like an impossible task, but even small changes to our language and behaviours can make a huge difference.
All mental health strategies need to be tailored to each individual case as the make-up of a school can determine the types of problems students will face. However, there are some tips that all schools can take on board.
Johnny and Becci believe that a preventative rather than a reactionary approach should be the focus of schools in order to halt issues before they start escalating. The best way to do this is to devise a whole school approach, with the aim of equipping everyone in the school community with knowledge about common mental health problems and how best to deal with them. This has been shown to reduce the chance of larger problems developing.
Here are some of the most important things Johnny and Becci think you need to bear in mind when thinking about a whole school approach to mental health:
Schools can have a big impact
- As children spend so much of their time at school, it is an ideal place to start getting them to think about their mental health. This should start from as early an age as possible. According to the World Health Organisation, half of all mental health problems develop before the age of 14. The teenage brain undergoes huge processes of change which accumulate into the perfect storm for the development of a mental health condition. But giving children the knowledge to identify symptoms will make mental health problems seem a lot less daunting and will hopefully reduce the chance of problems spiralling.
- Nowadays, being a teacher no longer just means passing on knowledge to students, it is so much more than that. Teachers have to wear so many different hats to ensure the wellbeing of their students. We recognise it can often become quite overwhelming for staff as they fear they cannot make the impact they want to on the lives of their students. But it is really important for educators to know they really can make a difference in improving the mental health of the children they teach. Teachers are not expected to be psychologists but having some helpful skills they can use on a daily basis can really improve a school’s mental health provision.
- Mental health needs to be seen in the same way as physical health. Many clients are surprised that depression and anxiety disorders can be treated relatively easily, having suffered much of their lives.
- Such a huge part of tackling mental health is normalising it. Regularly talking about mental health will also go a long way in removing the stigma, which will make children more likely to reach out for help when they recognise symptoms.
A new approach is needed to combat the crisis
- Schools, of course, are doing their best to solve the issues mental health poses. But clearly current strategies are not working. Johnny admits that he has seen very little change in the 20 years he has worked in the field but he is hoping educators are beginning to see the value in a whole school approach. The bottom line is a school councillor is not enough. Rebecca tells us that everyone needs to be involved and informed to really achieve a cultural shift in attitudes. Mental health practises should not be looked at like fire safety, something that is just done once a year to tick a box. Schools should be incorporating evidence-based techniques like CBT into the curriculum, not just putting on a day’s training.
- There are lots of different techniques out there to help with mental health problems, however one singular approach is not going to help all issues. BMHET’s sustainable training packages aim to give educators the confidence to know what they are looking for, identify and deliver the correct approach required to mitigate the issue, whilst being supported through clinical supervision and consultation.
Mental Health should be embedded into day-to-day teaching
- Resourcefulness and resilience are central to being a successful adult and therefore should be viewed like any other educational target for children to be equipped with. Incorporating mental health education into schools does not mean whole class therapy sessions. Rather it should be, like any other topic, about imparting knowledge about mental health to students. For example, panic is the misinterpretation of normal bodily sensations. If students have the knowledge about what this feels like and how to manage it, the effects of anxiety could be minimised.
- A spiral curriculum is a great approach as it builds knowledge over time. This consists of repetition of knowledge with a deepening level of complexity with each time it is revisited. By structuring mental health education like this, it becomes familiar and accessible for students.
- Mental health could be built into other subjects just like other cross-curricular plans. Whether this be Biology, English or PE, links could be made to mental health to ensure it is being widely spoken about.
- Modelling is such an important part of the learning process. Children can pick up behaviours, both good and bad, from those around them.
Teachers’ mental health needs to be a concern too
- This of course does place additional pressure on staff, many of whom feel like they are overstretched by what is expected of them. It is vital that staff welfare is at the centre of this approach; if teachers cannot recognise poor mental health in themselves, they won’t be able to help their students.
- As we have mentioned, children learn through modelling so if teachers are displaying traits that allude to bottling up their feelings and avoiding talking about mental health, children will pick up on it and internalise their own problems.
- No one is expecting teachers to provide all the solutions, so there is no shame in asking for guidance. Services such as Blue Mental Health Education & Training are there to act as a safety net for any problems, including those felt by staff. A whole school approach means just that, everyone needs to feel included and supported so everyone’s mental wellbeing has the opportunity to improve.
Whole school means everyone – families need to be engaged
- Just like with their teachers, children will pick up on behaviour from their parents. Therefore, it would be really helpful to have parents aware and educated on the school’s approach so that they can incorporate it into their home life.
- When engaging with parents, teachers often worry about striking the right note with them. Walking through situations with parents whilst allowing them the opportunity to make a final decision, albeit one you have guided them to, can educate parents and give them confidence in their ability to manage a mental health challenge.
Blue’s Final Top Tips
- Everyone needs to be singing from the same hymn sheet. There is no point in having only one person in a school with all the information about mental health.
- Giving everyone basic knowledge on the topic will have a far bigger impact!
- Your approach needs to be consistent, as mental health cannot just be viewed as statutory training that needs to be done to tick a box. Our understanding of mental health is changing all the time, so how we deal with it needs to be able to adapt and respond alongside it. Continually engaging with mental health will make this easier as knowledge of the basics becomes embedded.
- Use the spiral curriculum model-information on mental health needs to be regularly revisited in order for it to be built upon. This will embed information on the topic in students’ minds, making it easy to access if necessary. It also breaks down stigma surrounding mental health as it just becomes another part of the curriculum rather than an unspoken and daunting prospect.
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