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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Whole school mental health – What works, and the difference it can make

Recent events have taken their toll on adults and children in education alike – but there are steps that can be taken to get things back on track, insists Amy Sayer…

Amy Sayer
by Amy Sayer
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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

On 10 May 2021, the Department for Education announced £9.5m in funding so that between September 2021 and March 2022, around a third of schools and colleges in England would be able to access a grant to pay for senior mental health lead training.

These courses, organised by various national providers, are designed to help develop the knowledge and skills needed to implement an effective whole school or college approach to mental health and wellbeing – commitment that’s very much needed after the psychological impact of the pandemic, which continues to affect schools in various ways.

A whole school approach is important, since tokenistic ‘wellbeing’ activities in isolation are never going to support genuine and sustainable staff mental health provision at an institutional level.

Considering the relentless nature of in-school changes, safety concerns and the juggling of various caring responsibilities, it’s little wonder that Education Support’s 2021 Teacher Wellbeing Index found that 57% of secondary school teachers have considered leaving the profession within the past two years, as a direct result of pressures on their mental health.

A continuing crisis

The turbulence in education caused by the pandemic – which is yet to abate more than 20 months on – has been draining and challenging for teachers. Safety rules have been relaxed in other areas of society, with things expected to be ‘business as usual’ at a point where school staff still haven’t had time to properly process the traumatic nature of what they experienced during the early stages of the crisis.

New initiatives, and the looming prospect of Ofsted inspections, demand the headspace teachers had pre-pandemic, but many staff simply don’t have the mental capacity to cope, when they’re still investing so much emotional energy in trying to keep their classrooms and students as safe as possible.

The mental health impact of the pandemic on students is similarly becoming much more apparent. Many who seemed to be coping at the time are now experiencing anxiety due to the traumatic nature of what they’ve been through. Resources remain stretched, with schools often the first port of call for parents seeking mental health advice for their child.

So how can schools seek to address these emerging mental health needs in an effective, sustainable and appropriate way?

Students first

Students need to have a clear curriculum which teaches them the facts about supporting their own mental health; where they can go for support if they’re struggling or worried about a friend who may be struggling; and an understanding of how to talk about mental health in a way free from stigma.

This needs to be developed within a school’s wider curriculum model, and taught by teachers who have received training and are able to safeguard themselves, given that they may be addressing potentially distressing or triggering topics, such as self-harm.

This curriculum offer should draw on research and resources from children’s mental health organisations, such as Young Minds or the Anna Freud National Centre, and be supported by schools’ wider pastoral systems.

Form tutors could deliver sessions or assemblies focused on creating a wider awareness of mental health within school communities. Students themselves may wish to become part of a mental health ambassador scheme in their school, and receive additional training in how to support their peers and signpost them to resources when needed.

They could make display boards for use around the school, or deliver assemblies that provide guidance on mental health and normalise talking about it.

Staff support

Training staff to understand how they can look after their own mental health is essential for schools at the moment. Many teachers who haven’t previously struggled with their mental health or needed any support are now suffering from anxiety and depression for the first time as a result of the pandemic. They need to know that it’s okay to ask for help.

There must be a clear understanding in schools of how to carry out conversations around mental health so that staff can talk about it with line managers if needed. The Teacher Wellbeing Index indicates that a staggering 57% of education staff aren’t confident in disclosing unmanageable stress or mental health issues to their employer.

This has change if we want teachers to stay in the profession following a period of mental ill health. There also needs to be an understanding of what ‘reasonable adjustments’ are, and how these can support colleagues with their recovery during times when they’re struggling with mental health.

The Equality Act 2010 requires workplaces to put support in place for staff with mental health difficulties, just as they would in the case of staff with conditions that affect them physically. Properly informing staff that they’re entitled to receive help can go some way to reducing feelings of shame around asking for it.

Staff could also be entitled to take a ‘wellbeing week,’ where they opt in to having a ‘wellbeing buddy’ to look after for five days. This might entail expressing small gestures of kindness, such as delivering them cups of tea whilst they’re on duty, or making or buying a small gift to make them smile.

There should be no after-school meetings during this week, and a real effort should be made in helping staff avoid emailing each other in favour of holding in-person conversations instead. There could be a range of wellbeing activities held after school that staff could choose to run or attend, such as art therapy sessions or sporting events.

Arranging regular opportunities for staff to be recognised for their efforts can really support wellbeing. Nominating a member of staff to collate weekly ‘shout-outs’ that are sent out anonymously can make for a lovely end to the week. Sending ‘thank you’ cards to staff with sincere messages can help them to feel seen and appreciated amongst the busyness of school life.

Involve the parents

It could be useful to host an information evening, where parents can come into school and find out more about in-school and external support services they could use to support their child’s mental health.

It will be reassuring for them to meet the members of staff in school who are responsible for supporting their child if they are struggling, and to talk through their concerns so that they feel less alone and more supported.

Setting aside a clear and informative area for this information on the school website will help familiarise parents with where to go and what support they can access if and when they need it. This space could also include links to national and local specialist support services.

Your school’s pastoral support team should include members of staff who have received specific training on mental health and their details should be made available to parents, so that they can ensure their child knows where they can go whenever they need support in school.

As the psychological impact of the pandemic in schools becomes ever more prominent, the mental health training being funded by the government will be critical in ensuring schools make mental health a key priority in their future planning.

This needs to be sustainable, authentic and involve the whole school community, so that we can destigmatise mental health conversations, help colleagues start to process the events of the pandemic and assist everyone in accessing the right support.

Amy Sayer is a head of religious studies, mental health first aider and writer

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