I could hardly believe it. Recently, I was contacted by Blackpool Aspire Academy’s ambassador for mental health. What a wonderful role and title! An experienced pastoral caseworker for some years, Sandra, was given this role and title to champion mental health in her school.
So at last we are beginning to see implementation of the vision in Future in Mind for every school to name a specific individual to be responsible for wellbeing and mental health.
Some schools, facing pressures of many kinds, may be tempted to see promoting wellbeing and addressing mental health issues – two overlapping areas - as an extra to look at once all the other plates are up and spinning. Yet there is strong evidence of the links between well-being, learning and school improvement. Children with greater wellbeing, lower levels of mental health problems and greater emotional attachment to school achieve higher grade scores, better examination results and have better attendance.
Some staff may feel uncomfortable talking about mental health problems, perhaps not wanting to ‘label’ children and thinking that problems will in time disappear. However, this can result in a pattern of denial and serious, distressing situations that could be prevented.
Mental health is everyone’s business and talking about it openly, honestly and in a respectful, sensitive way can help develop better understanding, elimination of stigma, and solving problems before they escalate. Peer support around mental health and wellbeing by young people themselves is a way forward, Girlguiding UK have introduced a ‘Resilience’ badge to mark girls’ achievement in this area.
When children feel upset, scared or angry and need someone to talk to, but do not know who to seek out, or do not feel safe enough to do so, their anxiety is likely to increase.
Let’s consider depression in children, highlighted recently in the news. A warning in 2004 led to a temporary reduction in use of anti-depressant drugs for young people, due to fears that some could lead to suicidal behaviour. Yet a recent study revealed the shocking fact that between 2005 and 2012 there was a 54% increase in the number of young people prescribed anti-depressants in the UK. The report attracted probing comments from the director of mental health at the World Health Organisation.
The Royal College of General Practitioners responded to the report, identifying ‘pressure on the system in dealing with children showing moderate symptoms of depression’, as the reason for the startling statistic. It stated that children mildly depressed, can be supported by school counsellors, while for children with more severe symptoms, specialist psychological and psychiatric help is available for example in CAMHS. But it appears that the children in the middle may have been prescribed drugs, whereas their needs could have been met in other ways. These children are in our schools. We need to be able to identify need earlier and provide the right level of support for them.
Research shows that 1 in 10 children have diagnosable mental health needs. Children and young people with SEN are between two and four times more likely to have mental health needs than other children. Looked after children are 12 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress than non-LAC peers. These facts serve to highlight the widespread need.
One of the benefits of counselling and school-based therapeutic interventions is that a clinical diagnosis is not required to access them. In February the Department of Education updated Advice for school leaders on counselling in schools outlining how these services can help pupils and much useful information.
The National Children’s Bureau partnership for wellbeing and mental health in schools offers excellent advice and a framework to define and address the two interconnected areas of ‘social and emotional wellbeing’ (at the whole-school level) and ‘mental health problems’ (which affect smaller numbers of pupils who require targeted interventions). The advice also covers why emotional wellbeing needs to be appropriately connected with approaches to behaviour management.
So how are schools moving forward? Through assigning a specific person to champion mental health, Blackpool Aspire and other schools link with expertise, identify issues and make referrals to outcome-oriented evidence-based interventions. Their work will be an important part of the whole-school approach which sets out ways to meet universal needs of all pupils. The whole-school approach will prioritise professional learning and staff development and develop supportive policies.
A clear focus on wellbeing and mental health, starting with realistic goals and gradually permeating throughout the pastoral system and then the entire school, creates a happy and healthy environment for both students and staff. It equips students for their future and, crucially, directly helps schools achieve their fundamental purpose of ensuring effective learning.
To quote from Shakespeare: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet."
Whatever the title given to this special person – ambassador, champion or something else - it’s the role and commitment to follow through and make a real difference that’s important!