Schools can play a key role in the fight against poor mental health. Too often, however, they don’t have the capacity – lacking funding and/or resources – to support students. Over the course of her career at Lostock Hall Academy, in Preston, Lancashire, Charlotte Lowe, cognitive behavioural therapist and school counsellor, has developed a mental health model to meet the emotional and mental health needs of students. Here she shares the key principals – a wellbeing framework transferable to all schools
The prevalence of mental health problems in children throughout the UK is deeply concerning. According to a recent report by the Children’s Commissioner for England one in 10 young people experience a mental health problem at any one time – this equates to roughly three children in every classroom. Yet not enough is being done by schools (or to enable schools) to support their vulnerable students.
Developed in practice
At Lostock Hall Academy (LHA) Charlotte Lowe has taken a proactive approach to combatting poor mental health – setting out a model that encourages a ‘whole-school’ approach to mental health and, importantly, provides targeted interventions to children and young people (CYP).
The model follows recent guidance published by the DfE which focuses on emotional wellbeing and mental health and combines a range of elements that aim to meet the emotional wellbeing and mental health needs of CYP. ‘Most schools now recognise the need to support a student’s emotional health and well-being along with their learning. However, the use of clear terminology needs to exist across the whole school so there is a shared language whereby we distinguish between mental health, mental health problems and mental illness,’ Charlotte says in her introduction to the model.
The following is a summary of the areas Charlotte pin points as essential to creating and implementing a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing.
Whole school approach: This is about taking responsibility. All staff need to be responsible for identifying students who may be having a difficult time and they need to be clear on the protocol to follow where there is cause for concern.
Mental health policy: Every school needs a mental health policy which should exist alongside other school policies – such as the exclusion policy – and needs to be available to all key stakeholders (school staff, governors, parents/carers).
Training all staff: The government has recently stipulated that at least one member of staff in every secondary school will receive Mental Health First Aid training (MHFA) in the next few years. This is something that Charlotte advocates; at LHA their programme of training, ‘Aims to ensure more children receive timely and sensitive support by helping teachers to recognise signs that a young person may be struggling’. MHFA training seeks to ensure that school staff can identify students in difficulty and know what support is available to them. The model makes clear that, ‘Early intervention is vital and so this MHFA training provides huge benefits to school staff as they receive practical advice on how to deal with common mental health problems.’
Promoting positive emotional wellbeing: ‘The promotion of positive emotional wellbeing around school helps to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health issues. At LHA we aim for a culture whereby talking about how we feel, and seeking help when needed, is the norm,’ Charlotte outlines in the model. Positive emotional wellbeing is embedded in the school’s ethos and its engagement with students – promoted in assemblies, tutor time and lessons such as PHSE.
Single point of contact/mental health champion: Having a single point of contact, or a mental health champion, is something that Charlotte deems to be of great importance – it opens a single channel of communication with external agencies, such as Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS) or Children’s Social Care (CSC). This person will also ensure that the relevant staff are made aware of a student’s circumstances – as necessary.
Parental support: ‘Parental support is invaluable as they are often first to highlight concerns about their children. Schools need to make clear to parents who they need to contact if they are worried about their child,’ Charlotte says, and offers an example from LHA where parents are encouraged to inform their child’s form tutor if they have any concerns. In this way Charlotte highlights the importance of regular communication and signposting of available support.
Targeted interventions: While a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing is paramount. It’s important, Charlotte observes, to meet the particular needs of any student experiencing mental health difficulties – and this is where assessments are a useful tool; a clear referral pathway is essential.
Assessments: ‘At LHA the mental health needs of CYP are assessed in school by making use of Routine Clinical Outcome Measures recommended by Children and Young People’s Improving Access to Psychotherapies (CYP-IAPT) programme, such as the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) and the Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale (RCDAS),’ Charlotte explains in the model. Conducting such assessments means that referrals to CYPMHS are limited to those who actually need them – avoiding backlogs and ensuring that the students who need attention receive it – quickly.
Specialist support in school: Employing a mental health specialist isn’t a realistic aim for most schools; however, Charlotte points out that it is essential for students to have access to some specialist mental health support in school. She suggests a part-time school counsellor or, perhaps, a small cluster of schools could employ a shared mental health specialist.
Up-skilling the pastoral team: Your pastoral team are in an ideal position to support CYP experiencing difficulties, such as anger issues or low self-esteem, and should undergo continuous development to ensure that they are equipped to help students.
Peer mentoring: LHA developed a peer mentoring programme which involved training KS4 students to become peer mentors or ‘buddies’ to younger students. ‘The training focused on promoting positive emotional wellbeing and supporting students experiencing less serious mental health problems,’ Charlotte explains. Peer mentors were trained on what they should do if they were concerned about a student and supervision was provided by Charlotte – as the school’s counsellor.
External agencies: Your school’s mental health champion is responsible for keeping up-to-date with the external services available to support CYP and must understand the referral routes as well as the support that they can offer so that referrals can be made efficiently when required.
Staff wellbeing: Staff wellbeing must not be overlooked – they too are susceptible to mental health issues. Ensuring staff are in an emotionally positive place means that they are better-equipped to support CYP experiencing mental distress
For Charlotte, early intervention is key to tackling poor mental health in CYP. To achieve this schools need to prioritise the promotion of positive emotional wellbeing and mental support. The mental health model she has developed – which is under continued development as student needs and school frameworks continue to change – is one example of how schools can manage mental health and support CYP effectively.