Mental health: Developing a strategy

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The emotional wellbeing and mental health of pupils in our schools would seem to be in crisis. However, the government has announced a campaign to tackle the problem. With schools in the frontline, what can they be expected to do?

Summary

  • The government has announced plans to make improving mental health a priority.
  • The National Children’s Bureau has an online toolkit to help establish a whole-school framework.
  • Advice about prevention and strategies can be found on different websites but must be adapted for your school.

The charity YoungMinds reports that there are 850,000 children aged 5 to 16 who have mental health problems and that there are 3 children in every classroom who have a diagnosable mental health disorder. A recent survey conducted by Forum in 2016 showed just how widespread concern was amongst those working in schools.

This now appears to have reached the ears of the government and it has been announced that a review of children and young people’s mental health services is to be carried out.

In a speech given to the Charity Commission on the 9 January, Theresa May announced that improving mental health support is to be a key priority for the government. The details of this include:

  • a major review of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), led by the Care Quality Commission to identify good practice as well as areas that need development
  • the publication of a green paper which detail plans to improve services in schools, higher education and for families
  • an objective that, by 2021, all children will be able to access mental health support locally instead of travelling long distances for special care
  • the expansion of online mental health support.

Part of this commitment includes involving schools more in tackling mental health. There is to be a three-year programme of mental health training in secondary schools run by Mental Health First Aid England. It is projected that approximately one third of secondary schools will receive this during 2017. It will then be rolled out to the remainder over the next two years.

There is some scepticism as to the impact of these measures. Money has previously been channelled towards CAMHS only to be gobbled up by other departments. Schools are also struggling as budgets shrink, both in schools and in the services they rely on. In an uncertain economic climate and with pressing mental health needs in our classrooms, what can schools do?

Take stock

The National Children’s Bureau has launched their online toolkit, ‘A Whole School Framework for Emotional Wellbeing and Mental Health’. It includes a step-by-step guide to developing capacity within the school itself to cope with mental health referrals and to build a climate of prevention.

It is not a solution to addressing the mental health needs that pupils in your school might have. However, it is a step towards constructing a plan for your school that might enable you to feel more in control of mounting mental health issues.

The authors identify three barriers to change:

  1. Mental health has tended to be seen as outside a school’s remit and instead, the domain of experts.
  2. The issues affect different schools in different ways.
  3. Wellbeing and mental health support are not high profile or seen as core business for everyone in schools.

They propose a four-stage approach:

  1. Stage one: Deciding to act and identifying what is in place already.
  2. Stage two: Getting a shared understanding and commitment to change and development.
  3. Stage three: Building relationships and developing practices.
  4. Stage four: Implementation and evaluation.

Stage one

It is important to begin the process by identifying what schools do already. It is likely that, within and between year groups, there is good practice that others within the school might not even be aware of. It is important that there is an integrated approach.

The staff questionnaire (see Form – Stage one: Staff questionnaire on school mental health support) can be used to begin the process of finding out from individuals and groups how they currently view mental health in the school.

Stage two

Stage two includes ensuring that everyone has a shared understanding of what social and emotional wellbeing is and about mental health. It is important that staff use vocabulary consistently. Use the key terms and definitions questionnaire (see Handout – Stage two: Key terms and definitions for mental health and wellbeing) to check everyone’s understanding. You should then consider the framing principles that are identified (see Form – Stage two: Framing principles for mental health provision in our school) and the extent to which these are already embedded in your school.

Stage three

Following the consultations and discussions, this is the stage at which a school will begin to firm up its practice and address what needs changing. The action development plan (see Worked example – Stage three: Mental health action development plan) provides some examples of what a school might find they need to develop further.

Stage four

The final stage is to ensure that the agreed actions take place and that the new approach is effectively implemented.

Prevention

The materials from the National Children’s Bureau are a good way of identifying where your school is in relation to mental health awareness and where it wants to be. The challenge is then to identify the strategies, agencies and advice to be able to support emerging needs amongst your pupils and prevent them happening in the first place.

The YoungMinds website remains a good source of advice and information and identifies different strategies that can be used to help support vulnerable pupils. Prevention features strongly here and schools are advised to promote children’s mental health through:

  • encouraging a wide range of school activities that build a sense of community
  • creating classroom environments that value student engagement
  • developing relationships including:
    • positive teacher-student relationships
    • supportive peer relationships
    • positive home-school communication
  • providing opportunities for students and staff to learn about each other, e.g. through paired reading, tutor groups and mixed-age activities.

Prevention will not always stand in the way of mental health difficulties emerging. Many factors can cause pupils to develop issues at some point in their school life and many of these are not directly linked to school at all.

Strategies for school

In the toolkits included in this issue, there are examples of different sources of advice and ideas to help pupils who are experiencing mental health difficulties. Increasingly, schools are turning to the appointment of their own counsellors to provide an in-house alternative to external support.

Organisations such as the PSHE Association and MindEd have materials and advice available on their websites. There are also materials for parents as well as young people themselves provided by YoungMinds and as part of the national safety tool. Finding and adapting the best materials for use by your school will take time.

As awareness of the mental health crisis grows, schools will need more than just encouragement to find the resources and capacity to deal with the needs of their pupils. It is hoped that the current commitment from Theresa May towards this issue converts into accessible support and the financial means to put it into practice.

Further information

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.

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About Author

Dr. Suzanne O'Connell

Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. She is also the Managing Editor of Attendance Matters Magazine. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.

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