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What should schools be doing to support the mental health of their students?

holding-hands-resizedpixel-learning-250 Pixel Learning brings together film and education to inspire empathy in young people – empowering them to deal with challenging issues in their lives.

In this first of four guest blogs, Catherine Miller, a secondary school English teacher and writer living and working in South London, explores the key issues faced by young people and some approaches to solving them.

The figures speak volumes. In February 2016, the BBC reported that the number of 13-19 year olds admitted to emergency departments had risen by a third in the past five years. This was linked to increasing levels of self-harm.

Last year’s The Connected Generation report revealed that 1 in 5 of our young people have had suicidal thoughts; and 45% of the age group don’t know where to go for help. Added to this is the stark fact, reported by SSAT, that three students in every class will be affected by mental health issues.

The situation for young people is made worse by the continuing social stigma surrounding mental health issues. Hannah Knight, Education Director at Pixel Learning, says, ‘We know that 67% of young people feel lonely or isolated due to problems they have faced now or previously, and 90% of children experience stigma and discrimination as a result of mental health issues.’

Exam season exacerbates the problems

So, how can we as a society best address these problems and help support our young people through tough times? Schools, in daily contact with many of them, need to play a role.

This is especially important at this time of year, when exam season can exacerbate or even create mental health issues. Just as schools have a duty of care when it comes to students’ physical wellbeing, we have to understand that mental and emotional wellbeing also requires our attention. We may be able to spot early warning signs and signpost our students towards professional help.

The role of mental wellbeing in supporting academic achievement is also highly relevant to schools. In March 2015, the Department for Education’s advice on mental health and behaviour in schools stated: ‘in order to help their pupils succeed, schools have a role to play in supporting them to be resilient and mentally healthy.’

Helen Knight, a mental health nurse with over 30 years’ experience of working with young people, agrees that there is a link between mental wellbeing and academic progress.

She now supports the ThinkWell workshop, a new project using documentary film in schools to promote understanding of mental health. ‘If mental wellbeing is supported,’ Helen says, ‘young people are better able to access the curriculum, perform better in exams and exhibit fewer behavioural problems’.

How schools respond

The need for schools to take action is clear, but how exactly the issue is tackled can depend on the individual school and how it can best serve its community. This is the approach recommended by SSAT, who suggest that ‘schools need to develop their own culture’.

Helen Knight recommends that, in some way, ‘Schools should let students talk about how they feel, to somebody who is aware of mental health – be that a head of year, chaplain or school counsellor.’ Having a supportive environment where students feel comfortable discussing their feelings is vital.

Curriculum can aid mental health

It is also important to remember that school is not just a place for academic achievement within a narrow range of subjects. Helen advises that schools should embrace the breadth of each student’s ability. ‘Having something you’re really good at is a key protective factor in preventing some mental health problems.’

However, with schools under increasing pressure to meet new accountability measures and cope with changes to the curriculum, meeting mental health needs creates additional challenges. Most of us in schools are well aware of the role we play – Hannah explains, ‘I have worked in schools all over the UK, and the one thing that all teachers have in common is their unswerving commitment to protect and nurture their students’ welfare. Every teacher wants their students to do well, but they also want their students to be well.’ It can, however, be a challenging remit to fill.

Having something you’re really good at is a key protective factor in preventing some mental health problems.

Helen points out that teachers are not therapists. Further, specific training in mental health is rare within schools, so approaching such topics can be daunting. ‘Teachers have exceptionally challenging jobs: the demands of guiding their students through the ever-shifting academic landscape inevitably and rightly consumes much of their time. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect them to be experts in mental health as well.’

This is where external support can be useful. Hannah says, ‘The only way the statistics are going to change is with collaboration and co-operation between many different sectors… Schools are in a unique position to facilitate the collaborative process, acting as a gateway for early interventions, be that provided in-house or by external organisations that can offer expertise and a different perspective.’

Workshops in schools

To this end, Pixel Learning have developed the ThinkWell workshop to bring the discussion about mental health to schools. The team use a REEL approach (realistic, energetic, empathetic and life-affirming), using the fascinating story of Jonny Benjamin as a springboard into an exploration of mental health and how to get help if its needed.

Jonny tried to take his own life in 2008, but a stranger’s kindness changed his mind. His search for this unknown man, using the Twitter hashtag #findmike, was documented in the film ‘Finding Mike: The Stranger on the Bridge’, broadcast by Channel 4 in 2015. (The film is to be screened at Kensington Palace on Thursday 10th March, with The Royal Family in attendance alongside Jonny.)

By focusing on a real-life story, the workshop avoids pressurising students to reveal personal information. Crucially, a trained CAMHS therapist is also available to talk privately to any who need it.

Schools are in a unique position to facilitate the collaborative process, acting as a gateway for early interventions, be that provided in-house or by external organisations that can offer expertise and a different perspective.

Another important aspect of ThinkWell is raising awareness of how young people can access support outside school. We teachers should know about important resources like Get Connected, Childline and The Mix, where young people can get free advice and counselling.

Not only can these be crucial lifelines for our students, but knowing where to pass on serious problems can alleviate our anxiety too.

Supporting staff too

‘Teachers can be stressed themselves,’ Helen notes. ‘Schools should support their staff as well as their students.’ A culture of open discussion and valuing each other’s achievements is just as important for the adults in school as it is for the young people in our care.

Taking time out for ourselves and finding ways to relax, especially in this busy period of the year, is also a good idea. Senior managers can even help staff feel valued with small gestures like nice soap in the toilets or free drinks in the staffroom.

Hannah sums up the challenge: ‘Improving the mental health of young people is going to need concerted effort, innovation and creativity to effect social change.’ It will take work, but keeping an eye on mental health within schools has potential benefits for everyone. Who wouldn’t want to see a happier, more fulfilled generation going out into the world?

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The ThinkWell workshop initiative was launched in Dunraven School, London. Dunraven School is part of the SSAT network – find out more about membership here.

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