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Schools and children’s mental health

Mike Hodgkiss
Mike Hodgkiss 05 October, 2017

As children’s mental health becomes one of society’s most pressing issues, many teachers find themselves on the frontline.

What can, should, schools and colleges and universities do?

Is “Happiness Ofsted” the way forward?

A study by the DfE has found that a lack of funding has led to schools not being able to set up sufficient mental health support for pupils.

The DfE conducted two surveys, one at the end of 2015-16 and the other at the beginning of 2016-17, to understand what schools and colleges currently do to promote positive mental health and wellbeing among pupils.

Of the 2,780 institutions that completed the surveys, 71 per cent perceived funding as a “major barrier” to setting up mental health provision. This was particularly a problem among mainstream schools. Nearly three quarters (74 per cent) of respondents said commissioning local services was also a major issue, as well as a “lack of internal capacity”, where 59 per cent reported it as barrier.

More than nine in ten (91 per cent) of those surveyed said they are forced to provide counselling services and other mental health provision from their own budget, leaving them “faced with difficult decisions” about managing their budget, including whether to “prioritise spending on supporting academic, special educational or mental health needs”.

Pupils’ mental health is being affected by constant reminders that they are “not good enough” in terms of exam results, new research has found.

Even high-attainers can be made anxious by the pressures their schools can place on them to do well, researchers at Newman University, Birmingham, say in a study which is due to be presented at the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) today.

The research looked at the experiences of young people who have left the mainstream state school system to go through “alternative provision” – which caters for pupils who cannot cope with mainstream education including those with behavioural problems, persistent truants and those suffering from anxiety or depression, or coping with bereavement.

The government is however attempting to ease the strain by funding mental health support outside of schools’ budgets.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said: “Growing up can be challenging and in today’s world, with our increasing use of social media and technology, young people’s worries can be even more acute. It’s right that this government is stepping up support for their mental health, equipping them with the resilience they need to thrive.”

There is a growing crisis within children’s mental health, and this is not a term used lightly – between 2010 and 2015 there was a 50% increase in hospital admissions because of children self-harming. And in 2016 Childline reported the highest ever number of callers expressing suicidal thoughts. This is a figure that has doubled over the last five years.

A report by the Children’s Commissioner for England warned that more than 800,000 children were living with mental health issues in the UK, with a large proportion from vulnerable families. Issues they face include parents with alcohol addiction, involvement in the care system, as well as dangers posed by street gangs and modern slavery.

As children’s mental health becomes one of society’s most pressing issues, many teachers find themselves on the frontline – with the effect being felt in schools across the country. In 2017, 79% of teachers in both primary and secondary schools reported seeing an increase in stress, anxiety and panic attacks in their pupils as well as a rise in depression, self-harm and eating disorders. But without specialist training – which isn’t currently a requirement – a lot of those working in schools feel unprepared for the challenges they are facing.

With this in mind, below are a few ways schools can try and help.

  1. Start talking about it

Mental health needs to be integrated into the school curriculum, which will help increase understanding and reduce stigma around issues. Without this, pupils may not be aware their mental health is deteriorating and feel silenced or shamed when seeking help.

If both pupils and teachers have more open discussions about mental health, issues will also be easier to identify early on, and this will help to build students’ knowledge and understanding of the subject.

Ideally, mental health needs to be talked about the same way physical education or healthy eating is, because research has found that when schools adopt a comprehensive approach to discussing mental health it supports all pupils – including those who are experiencing mental health difficulties already.

  1. Create a safe space

Students do better in schools when they feel safe – this means ensuring that bullying incidents are low and addressed, including the rising incidents of cyberbullying.

The evidence also shows that when students feel a sense of belonging, have good peer and teacher relationships, and feel listened to when they raise concerns, also helps to support positive mental health in schools.

  1. Support for all

Everyone in schools from the teachers to the teaching assistants, the school lunch staff to the school nurse, all have a role to play in improving the school environment – and making it more open to discussions around mental health.

But they can do only do this if they are supported and healthy themselves. Looking out for the well-being of staff will itself have a positive impact on the students. And research shows that when staff are trained in mental health they are more confident in supporting their students. The same research also showed that this additional mental health training even helped to boost staff’s own resilience and job satisfaction.

  1. Make sure teachers know how to help

Headteachers should demand mental health training for all new teachers. And before a school takes on a new or trainee teacher, they should ask to see what mental health training they have. This could include an understanding of the risk and resilience factors for their students, how to spot the signs of mental ill health, along with how to support and get help for students at risk.

  1. Recognise that it takes a community

Looking after children’s mental health isn’t just something that can be done on a small scale, it involves a shift in the way everyone not only works together, but also communicates on issues.

The good news is there are lots of additional things schools are already doing in this area, including working with parents and having staff as mentors for vulnerable students. Many schools have also introduced peer mentoring, where children are partnered up with older children who can look out for them.

Running extracurricular social activities for pupils has also been shown to help have a positive impact on students, by providing a space for them to work through their emotions and develop strategies to address their challenges.

These strategies for schools were part of an article by Damian Page, Dean of The Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University and coauthored by Dean Johnstone, CEO of Minds Ahead and first appeared in TheConversation.


With half a million people preparing to make the transition to student life, now that the new academic year is upon us, prospective students will be full of excitement, but for many it will also be a testing time. Universities already have plenty of initiatives to support their students in place – but they could be strengthened through a transition strategy that prioritises mental health and wellbeing.

When we dig deeper into the data on coping with the transition to university, there is a notable gender imbalance. Female students find it particularly difficult to cope, with 91% reporting to have struggled with one or more of the above issues, compared to 82% of male students.

The stigma around mental health has thankfully diminished in recent years, which has perhaps led to higher rates of reporting. New Institute for Public Policy Research analysis found nearly five times as many students as 10 years ago disclosed a mental health condition to their university. This means demand for university mental health services is growing, and institutions will have to ensure they are equipped to deal with it. Now is the time for universities to assess how the growing demand for mental health services can be met.

In a recent article for The Guardian Andy Cope, best-selling author and founder of the Art of Brilliance wrote:

How can we stop young people from suffering mental health problems in the first place? I believe the answer is simple: equip them with the knowledge and skills to be in charge of their own wellbeing.

That’s why a small band of heads and classroom teachers and I are currently trialling a “Happiness Ofsted” approach. We deliver training to children in years five to 13 and introduce them to a range of positive psychology topics such as wellbeing, resilience, personal responsibility, growth mindsets, kindness, mindfulness and gratitude.

The lessons are adapted from a successful business model that my team and I have delivered around the world. The principles of wellbeing are universal. Everyone wants to feel amazing and function at their optimal level but the current system fails to tell you how. Our happiness workshops are designed to be interactive and great fun, as well as being grounded in the very latest thinking, all the while lining young people up to be their best self.

He concludes by saying:

Our hope is that, one day, GCSE wellbeing will sit alongside maths, science and English as a core subject, and that it will impact positively on school grades across the board. My research has shown that happiness is good for business (happy employees work harder, are more creative and have less time off sick) so common sense tells us the same principles will also apply to children.

Meeting the multi-headed monster of mental health problems with resilience, positivity, happiness, altruism and emotional intelligence is a tough fight. But it’s winnable.