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Schools’ role in young people’s mental health – understanding, acceptance and inclusion

Matt-blogAfter visiting 166 member schools since they started work in September 2015, our team of six relationship managers are reflecting on a hugely successful first year. Here, Matthew Smitheman recalls a recent visit to a school whose pastoral and mental health provision left a lasting impression…

“No matter who you are, there is a place for you [here] and you’re accepted.”
Student, High Arcal School, SSAT member school in Dudley, West Midlands

Recent governmental advice [PDF] emphasises that schools have an important role in promoting good mental health in their pupils. However, as noted by former mental health ‘tsar’ Natasha Devon in her recent article, there needs to be a far greater understanding of the nuances of mental health, rather than simply engendering resilience and grit in young people.

This is a sentiment echoed from the SSAT dinner in December 2015 to discuss how the school system can better protect young people’s mental health: “We need to secure greater and broader understanding, beyond preconceptions and beyond stigma, making the best use of the best evidence, of what the issues are, what the causes are and what the effective solutions are.” Bill Watkin, Chair, SSAT dinner report [PDF].

There has been progress, with the recently introduced requirement in the new framework for initial teacher training in July 2016 that ITT providers must ensure trainees understand mental health and SEND. These moves to keep student mental health high on the agenda are warmly welcomed.

However, there are still concerns about the effects of increased rationing of psychological help from the NHS: “Even if all the [promised] £1.25bn helped ensure that 70,000 extra children received help, and pledges made in the recent NHS mental health taskforce report were delivered, many young people would still not get the help they need.”

As an SSAT relationship manager, I enjoy helping to bring the network to life by speaking with members at events, on school visits and in phone chats. However, I regularly hear about the increased pressure on schools to take greater levels of responsibility for mental health. Although this troubles me due to strained school budgets, I have seen how some member schools have created environments which nurture warmth and good mental health in their pupils.

During my visit to High Arcal School I was hugely impressed by the pastoral support and inclusive environment the staff have created for the pupils. There was clear evidence of understanding the nuances of mental health. During our meeting headteacher Jo Bull said “we use ‘care’ in both soft and hard senses: yes, I care that these students have the opportunity to move forward. But also, I care that they will achieve.”

It was strongly evident that simply taking action to ingrain resilience and grit is not the whole answer. You will be able to read the full case study in the Autumn 2016 edition of SSAT Journal…

I’m not sure I agree with the view in a recent article that schools are entering a period of ‘happiness enlightenment’ but there are some green shoots, particularly in work around mindfulness, outdoor learning and an asset-based community development (ABCD) approach to engaging more challenging students.

With cuts to the NHS, local authority services under siege and further studies which show that mental health provision in schools is ‘patchy’ and not seen as a priority, it is vital we discuss the issues openly and learn from fellow schools as much as possible. There is no silver bullet to mental health, but we can start by listening to the pupil at High Arcal who said understanding, acceptance and inclusion are key.

SSAT members

In order to face the challenges of pupil mental health, it is vital to keep well informed – and SSAT are here to help in that, and to keep you involved in the discussion. SSAT members can access resources on The Exchange including all the resources from this spring’s Mind Ed conference and more. If you wish to connect with any schools in the network about this issue do not hesitate to get in touch with your relationship manager, who can help broker a link. If you don’t know who your school’s relationship manager is, email the team and they will get in touch.

Find out more about SSAT membership.

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