The mental health and well-being of the children and young people in our care is increasingly coming under the spotlight. Many, me included, will say this is rightly so. We have evidence, not least from the medics treating young people, that more and more are struggling, for myriad reasons. Sadly, stories like this in which the “crisis” of mental health in our schools is all too evident, leave their tragic mark on all involved.
No matter how deteriorations in child mental health are reported and commented upon, evidence does suggest that we are gaining an understanding of what is contributing to the range of conditions affecting young people, not least, anxiety. According to the Children’s Well-being 2015 publication from the Office for National Statistics (which includes a measure of children’s mental ill-health), insights into children’s mental health and well-being, 1 in 8 children aged 10 to 15 reported symptoms of mental ill-health in 2011 to 2012, as measured by a high or very high total difficulties score. Being bullied was strongly related to mental ill-health, as was spending over 3 hours a night on social media. Children who are unhappy with their appearance report a high or very high total difficulties score as did children who quarrelled with their mother more than once a week.
How can we help?
So despite all the pressures facing children, how can we help to alleviate the anxieties they feel so that psychological well-being becomes the norm? This is clearly an issue for the whole of society to tackle, but how can schools make a positive impact?
Natasha Devon is an author, campaigner and educator specialising in mental health, body image and social equality. She has a nuanced understanding of the issue of child mental health and the expectations being placed on teachers. “Teacher stress is a systemic, rather than an individual problem and it needs to be acknowledged as such. As state funding from CAMHS, social services and even police officers has diminished, an expectation has been placed on teachers to plug those gaps in support. This is not only unfair, it is dangerous, since teachers are operating outside of their expertise. That’s why it’s so important we get behind the unions and continue to campaign for the social changes which would ease pressure on teachers.”
“In the meantime,” she continues, “my advice to school staff is this: Don’t get in the hole. Whilst teachers are often well placed to teach great PHSE lessons where they feel able, to spot the early signs of poor mental health in pupils, to listen to pupils non-judgmentally and to point them in the direction of further support and advice, they cannot be doctors, social workers and psychiatrists. It is important that not only you but your leadership team are clear on where your obligation and capabilities end. Interestingly, this is the principle at the core of Mental Health First Aid training, which came under so much criticism from people who thought it was training teachers to ‘fix’ pupil’s mental illnesses.”
Strategies that can help with the proviso that teachers must be expertly supported when helping anxious children to thrive at school, there are some strategies that can help:
A child or young person who is anxious is unlikely to be able to make the most of all that school life has to offer. They may feel inhibited or afraid, or their anxiety may leave them with persistent feelings of panic. Being aware and accommodating as a school is key.
It’s important that children and young people who are struggling with anxiety get medical attention. Make sure your pupils know where to go for help. Put posters up in toilets and visibly around the school with numbers and websites of local and national services.
Find out what the arrangements are for referring children for further help. These vary from area to area. Ensure that there are strong working links between your school all the services in your area that support the mental health of young people.
Talk about what good mental health looks and feels like. Help young people to recognise when they might be crossing the line between good and poor psychological health.
Consider adapting your teaching if necessary to ease the anxiety of any affected children. This may mean working closely with health care professionals to develop and agree upon a way forward for individuals.
Regardless of the strategies employed in your school, these can only work effectively if teachers and other staff are supported effectively. When we accept this as a profession and act on it, we really can improve lives.
Find out more
– Natasha Devon is an author, campaigner and educator specialising in mental health, body image and social equality. Find out more about her work at natashadevon.com
– The young minds website carries tools and toolkits for schools caring for the mental health of young people.
– place2be supports schools with a menu of services to improve mental health.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.