Adopting a whole-school approach to mental health

Miriam Sorgenfrei
Monday, February 7, 2022

It is well understood that Covid-19 has been a strain on families and young people in many ways.

NHS data show that young people’s mental health has deteriorated. Among 17- to 19-year-olds, one in six young people had a probable mental health disorder in summer 2020 and 2021, while in 2017, one in ten had a probable mental health disorder.  

Mental health and behavioural difficulties in adolescence not only impact the quality of a young person’s life, but are also associated with a variety of adverse outcomes in adulthood.

These outcomes include poorer mental and physical health in adulthood, an increased risk of school drop-out, substance abuse, drug-related and violent crime, not being in employment, education or training (NEET status), and unplanned pregnancies. 

To prevent poor mental health or behaviour difficulties casting a long shadow over young people’s lives, adolescents need to be supported in developing better mental health. 

Schools are in a unique position to support young people in enhancing their mental health and wellbeing. In schools, young people should acquire the skills to succeed academically, as well as being empowered to realise their potential and lead a fulfilling life. Schools can best achieve this by implementing a whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing.  

To inform the development of mental health guidance for secondary school teachers, the Early Intervention Foundation and the Anna Freud Centre conducted a survey to understand to what extent teachers and other staff members feel it is part of their role to support wellbeing and mental health, to what extent they feel able to do so – and most importantly what support they need to better support pupils’ wellbeing and mental health.  

An overwhelming majority of participants agreed it is part of their job to support wellbeing and mental health, and that this is a priority: 58 per cent said this was one of their topmost priorities, and 40 per cent said this was important alongside other priorities. Only two per cent stated that other priorities take precedence over mental health and wellbeing.

Responses to an open question regarding what teachers need most to better support pupils’ mental health and wellbeing suggest that there is a demand for practical tools or strategies that are tangible and easily accessible and can be applied in daily interactions. 

Participants called for everyday activities to encourage positive mental health, help with building friendships, fitting in, and developing resilience. Other responses suggest demand for practical strategies to support young people to manage stress and anxiety, including exam anxiety.  

Moreover, responses suggest a lack of confidence in identifying young people at risk and providing timely support. Other themes included the need for training that is widely available to all staff, information on the relationship between mental health, academic achievement, and behavioural difficulties, and strategies that teachers can apply to support young people who are on waiting lists for external support.  

Responses also reveal that respondents feel whole-school approaches need to be strengthened and support structures and referral procedures better established and communicated more clearly. 

Since the government published its Green Paper for Transforming children and young people’s mental health in 2017, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education and the NHS have developed actions to support schools in establishing a whole-school approach (Senior Mental Health Lead training [SMHL training]), and for working with specialists who can provide targeted support (Mental Health Support Teams [MHSTs]). 

A whole-school approach relies on senior leadership and includes the delivery of universal and targeted mental health support offers. Moreover, the approach requires a school-wide ethos and culture, where mental health, behaviour, and safeguarding policies are aligned, and the student voice is included in decision-making.

Furthermore, the whole-school approach relies on wider support structures and strong partnerships with specialist mental health support services. The SMHL training will help schools to develop such an approach.  

MHSTs deliver evidence-based interventions for mild-to-moderate mental health difficulties in schools, support whole-school efforts, and liaise with external specialist services to help young people to get the right support. These teams can provide much-needed specialist support to some of the most vulnerable young people. 

It is going to take time for MHSTs and SMHL training to become deep-rooted. However, the survey highlights a strong and imminent demand for additional support that enables all staff to enhance young people’s wellbeing and mental health. 

Pupils’ development is everybody’s responsibility. 

Teachers clearly care about young people‘s futures; in order to work effectively alongside the school’s (sometimes not yet established) senior mental health lead and mental health support team, they urgently need the tools to better support pupils’ mental health and wellbeing. 

Miriam Sorgenfrei is senior research officer at the Early Intervention Foundation

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