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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Mental health support – How should schools help students who don’t want to be helped?

Simon Antwis explains why schools can and must do more to identify mental health difficulties in those students determined to conceal them

Simon Antwis
by Simon Antwis
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Jane – not her real name – was classic ‘head girl material’. She was popular, sporty and an A* student. She exuded confidence, or so we thought.

At the time, I was head of a school that was trying out a new tool called STEER Tracking in an effort to better measure, track and ultimately improve our students’ mental health and self-regulation. The results for Jane’s year group had just come in, and my SLT and I sat down one rainy lunchtime to pore over the results.

After scanning the data, we were puzzled. The tool had flagged Jane as a student whose mental health we should keep a close eye on. A few of my colleagues sat back in their chairs, seeing this as the proof they’d been seeking that this whole exercise was a waste of time. As the biggest advocate for this new tool, I momentarily squirmed before quickly moving on to the other students it had identified.

Trusting and questioning

A fortnight later, Jane walked off the school premises in the middle of the day – behaviour that was totally out of character. When we found her, it emerged that she’d been the sole carer of her brothers and sisters for months. The combined burden of schoolwork, childcare and household chores had finally taken its toll.

I vowed then that wherever I became a headteacher, there must never be another Jane. I promised myself that I’d have a better handle on the pastoral needs of my students, and that while I’d continue to trust my instincts, I’d continually question them too.

Jane is no longer a student of mine. Since then, I’ve been a head at three schools, a school inspector and a senior education consultant, and I know from what I’ve seen that we can, and must do better at identifying and supporting students who are desperately trying to conceal their mental health struggles.

The ‘hidden middle’

Doing so is far from easy. If anything, it’s getting harder. Increasing numbers of students, particularly girls, are going to ever greater lengths to mask signs of distress, making it much more difficult for teachers and education staff to identify and help them.

This means that as teachers, pastoral staff and school leaders, we can no longer expect to identify our vulnerable students via the methods we’ve always used up to now. It’s simply not enough any more to go on what we can observe of students’ behaviour, their attendance, engagement, what we know of their home life and our gut feelings.

I know that many schools use student voice tools, such as online surveys and chat hubs, to identify vulnerable students, but I’ve found that these too often fail to spot the ‘hidden middle’ – those students who, for example, may be showing early signs of self-harm, bullying, anxiety or unhealthy self-control.

Using the tools

I’m still a passionate advocate for the tool that identified Jane, and have successfully rolled out STEER Tracking in each of the schools where I’ve been head. For me, it’s the final piece of the jigsaw – the one that may well affirm the observations and hunches of hard-working pastoral staff, or cause us question what we think we know about our students’ home lives.

Most importantly, the tool is designed so that it’s extremely hard to game, and can suggest a range of interventions for any students who are identified.

It’s encouraging to see how far we’ve come in the 30 years since, as a newly-qualified teacher, I was told to ‘check my Y11 form were okay’ with almost no training whatsoever. The time has now come to use the tools we have, and despite their attempts to pretend otherwise, do all we can to identify those other Janes (and Johns).

Simon Antwis is STEER Education’s senior education consultant, having previously been a headteacher of three schools and a school inspector; to find out more, visit steer.education or follow @steereducation

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