Mental health support for schools

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Teachers and school staff can feel that they are responsible for every aspect of a child’s development. That school goes beyond the need to educate has perhaps never been more evident than during the current crisis. However, schools can’t do it all on their own. Suzanne O’Connell suggests that help could be on its way.

Summary

  • School-based counselling could be one method of supporting students who have mental health issues.
  • Place2Be provides a range of mental health services for schools.
  • The government has made a commitment to increasing the support available to schools, including through an increase in mental health support teams.

Over the past year, it’s become clear that the mental health of many of our students has suffered. On the frontline, teachers and additional staff in school have been dealing on a day-to-day basis with the fallout from school closures and anxiety surrounding Covid-19. In the end, however, school staff are generally not mental health experts. Where referrals to CAMHS have been unable to stem the number of students needing help, schools are looking for additional support from external organisations.

“ There might be a group of students who are all experiencing similar issues and a therapeutic group can be a good alternative”

School-based counselling

A dilemma facing teachers at this present time is how to address the varied mental health needs of their pupils. Understandably, the teacher comes prepared to deliver the curriculum, albeit with adjustments to assist individual children as far as possible. However, mental health needs can require much more than this and although the teacher may be the first person to recognise the signs of distress that should trigger support, they are usually not qualified to provide all of what’s needed. 

One method of supporting young people is through school-based counselling. Counselling can give pupils a sense that they are not on their own when it comes to their difficulties. They can accept themselves more easily and gain clarity around the situation they find themselves in. For some, just a 20-minute chance to talk can be enough to calm the situation and provide a plan for the future.

In an ideal situation, the school would have its own counsellor available five days a week. For the majority of schools, this level of allocation is not possible. Instead, a school might share a counsellor with another school or might access a school support service such as Place2Be.

Place2Be has been working with children, their families and teachers for over 25 years. It focuses on early intervention and aims to prevent longer-term ill health by addressing mental health issues when they first emerge. It offers a menu of different services and ways of working, depending on the needs of the individual and the school.

Mental health support in schools

Pupils are referred for a variety of mental health problems including anxiety, low self-esteem, mood swings and trouble with their family. It offers an ‘integrative’ approach which includes different strands of therapeutic thinking. This includes:

  • person-centred: helping pupils and family members make the best decisions for themselves
  • psychoanalytic: exploring how buried thoughts, feelings and experiences shape current relationships
  • systemic: working with pupils and family members in the context of their relationships and environment.

It also draws on aspects of:

  • cognitive behavioural support: helping pupils and family members manage problems by changing how they think and behave
  • solution-focused support: helping pupils and family members work towards their own solutions.

Pupils can book an individual appointment with a Place2Be counsellor in which they can talk about their problems and their feelings. This might then develop into a one-to-one counselling session using talk, creative work and play.

On occasions, there might be a group of students who are all experiencing similar issues and a therapeutic group can be a good alternative for them. A parent counselling service also extends beyond the school, reaching out to families who are experiencing challenges.

Place2Be can also offer training for school leaders and their staff to make schools more mentally healthy. It offers guidance, training and safeguarding advice, sharing expertise in areas such as:

  • managing and understanding behaviour
  • SEND
  • additional support needs (ASN)
  • safeguarding
  • coping with staff stress.

Working with the government

In March 2021, Place2Be presented the government with evidence of the impact of Covid-19 on education and children’s services.  Along with representatives from Young Minds, they emphasised the importance of ‘catch-up’ being more than just catching up on academic attainment.

A major part of their message is that children’s mental health needs to be addressed on a school-wide basis using whole-school approaches to:

‘reduce stigma, intervene early, prevent mental health problems from arising or escalating, and ensure that positive mental health is embedded in the culture of every school.’

At the beginning of March, it was announced by the government that a new action group to boost mental health education would be discussing how best to respond to the mental health issues of greatest concern. This includes the increase in eating disorders and self-harm amongst young people. The Mental Health Action Group includes Catherine Roche, who is Chief Executive of Place2Be. At the first meeting of the group, she reported:

‘We know from our school-based mental health professionals that young people have been deeply affected by the pandemic. It’s therefore really positive to see the worlds of Education and Health come together at this crucial time. Schools are fantastic in providing easily accessible, destigmatised support for children and families, but teaching staff cannot do this alone. Expert support from mental health professionals will be crucial as we move forward and understand the true impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health.’

More government action has been agreed, focusing on:

  • boosting support available to help students move between schools and year groups
  • looking at how schools and colleges can target funding and recovery support.

The government has expressed its commitment to expand mental health services, including through increasing the number of mental health support teams. Last March, 59 of these were set up and the intention is to increase this number to around 400 teams by April 2023. These would then have the capacity to support nearly three million children and young people.

According to Place2Be, one in six children and young people have a diagnosable mental health problem. Half of those with lifetime mental health problems first experience symptoms by the age of 14. With these kinds of statistics, this capacity will very much be needed if schools, their children and families are to emerge with the resilience and mental health they need to make the most of their lives.

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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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