The extent and growing problem of mental health issues faced by pupils of all ages in our schools over the past decade is well documented (Weale, 2019). Recent research indicates that one in 10 children are experiencing significant mental health problems, with two in five young people scoring above thresholds for emotional problems, conduct issues or hyperactivity. For some particularly vulnerable groups, such as pupils with additional learning needs or those from deprived backgrounds, the scale of mental health problems may be even higher, estimated at one in eight pupils affected (Deighton et al., 2019).
The increasing scale and severity of mental health problems faced by pupils in our schools has highlighted a number of key related issues. The first is the inadequate funding and resources for existing services faced with growing demand – only six per cent of the NHS budget is spent on child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) – and in the past two years these services have become a key government health priority, although it has been argued that this still does not address the urgency of the problems faced (Weale, 2019). Second is the need for national policy guidelines, better access to existing services – as well as the development of new ones – and improved checks on the appropriateness and quality of the services and support offered. Recent policy issued by the DfE and DHSC has sought to address all these areas, most notably the requirement to have a designated mental health lead in every school (Glazzard and Stones, 2019). Third is the pivotal role played by schools in supporting pupils with mental health issues and in the wider promotion of mental health and wellbeing. Research indicates that staff–pupil and pupil–pupil relationships, a curriculum focused on social and emotional health, and the promotion of mental health literacy and awareness are key for promoting a mentally healthy environment (Glazzard and Stones, 2019). However, at the same time, it is reported that there is a wide variation in the mental health support offered by schools for their pupils (Weale, 2019).
The above illustrates the challenges faced by student teachers undergoing initial teacher education (ITE) in recognising their professional responsibilities and developing their professional practice with regard to mental health and wellbeing in schools. It is a particularly daunting area, both professionally and personally, for student teachers who are already learning to get to grips with the complexity of teaching and working in schools. In particular, it can be difficult for student teachers to appreciate the whole-school approach to the promotion of mental health and wellbeing for all pupils, while at the same time navigating their responsibilities, but also their limitations, in supporting pupils with specific mental health issues in their classes. Furthermore, with such a wide variation in approaches by schools towards mental health, as highlighted above, how can student teachers be made aware of and learn about the wide diversity of support, services and curricula available in schools (Brown, 2018)?
These are the challenges that the University of Hertfordshire and partnership schools aim to address for the students on its primary and secondary ITE courses, working in over 300 schools across Hertfordshire. First, all our student teachers are made fully aware, both at university and in school placements, of their responsibilities with regard to mental health and wellbeing. Second, we raise our student teachers’ awareness of mental health and wellbeing for their pupils through university and school-based sessions. Both these steps are introduced early and revisited throughout, and then consolidated by a mental health and wellbeing in schools conference held towards the end of the ITE courses. The conference is a flagship event, hosted by the University and involving a wide range of partnership schools and other agencies, offering a mix of keynote speeches and workshops. The conference is also an opportunity for the agencies involved to network, share good practice and develop partnership working, highlighting the excellent practice and support being offered to young people in our schools.
New policy initiatives and guidance, creation of new roles and services, and additional health and education funding are very welcome and very necessary for helping schools to develop effective services and support for mental health and wellbeing for their pupils (Deighton et al., 2019). However, essential to the success of these is the development of collaborative partnerships between mental health leads, their schools and other agencies at a local level, as outlined above, in order to develop high-quality support and services (Thorley, 2016).
Developing the role of a school mental health lead
My role as a mental health lead initially developed organically at Hitchin Girls’ School, significantly before the implementation of the formal role in the government green paper, from a desire to support students who were struggling with anxiety and self-harm in school. On a daily basis, staff are required to support a wide range of emotional needs among our pupils, and this has been a shift since many of us trained as teachers. We have recognised that while our key business is delivering the curriculum, it isn’t possible to help students to achieve the best outcomes if we don’t meet their needs beyond the academic. Key staff have been upskilled to develop their knowledge around mental health, and it has been necessary to implement a regular whole-school training programme to address the impact of mental health on learning and to offer ideas for how to overcome the barriers that poor mental health can create. We have developed bespoke resources for our school setting, but also encourage the use of MindEd online training. As a school, we have also tried to change the conversation from ill health to wellness by piloting a range of programmes designed to improve everyone’s knowledge of self-help wellbeing strategies. As this is an aspect of the teaching role that can be time-consuming and, at times, overwhelming, we have been delighted to work with PGCE students in order to help them understand some of the challenges that they might face linked to wellbeing and the teenage brain, so that they are more prepared for life as an NQT. Hitchin Girls’ School was proud to be the first Hertfordshire school to achieve the CAMHS kitemark for good practice in mental health and wellbeing, and we are keen to share best practice locally and nationally through collaborative working.
Brown R (2018) Mental health and wellbeing provision in schools: Review of published policies and information. Department for Education. Available at: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/747709/Mental_health_and_wellbeing_provision_in_schools.pdf (accessed 12 January 2020).
Deighton J, Lereya ST, Casey P et al. (2019) Prevalence of mental health problems in schools: Poverty and other risk factors among 28,000 adolescents in England. British Journal of Psychiatry 215: 565–567.
Glazzard B and Stones S (2019) Children and young people’s health: The role of schools. In: BERA blog. Available at: bera.ac.uk/blog/children-and-young-peoples-mental-health-the-role-of-schools (accessed 12 January 2020).
Thorley C (2016) Education, education, mental health: Supporting secondary schools to play a central role in early intervention mental health services. Available at: ippr.org/publications/education-education-mental-health (accessed 12 January 2020).
Weale S (2019) Mental health of pupils is ‘at crisis point’, teachers warn. The Guardian, 17 April, 2019.