Making minds matter: mental health and wellbeing in school

The government have promised £200k in funding for mental health first aid training in secondary schools across the UK – but what can you do for your school now? For an article in Education Executive, MARIE CAHALANE caught up with CHARLOTTE LOWE, school counsellor at Lostock Hall Academy, Preston, about mental health in schools, the importance of raising awareness and the Shaw Mind Foundation petition

Education is not (or should not be) just focused on academic issues – wellbeing is also key to development. Would you like to share your insight on this?

I believe it’s essential that equal value is placed on the mental health and wellbeing of students and their academic growth. How can students learn effectively if they’re suffering from problems such as low mood or anxiety?

This is why we established and circulated our petition calling for mental health and wellbeing to be discussed as part of the school curriculum. PHSE lessons focusing on mental health and wellbeing need to be made statutory and updated on a regular basis to ensure schools remain aware of any recent developments in the field.

The focus on mental health and wellbeing in PHSE lessons could help to build resilience and coping skills in young people, helping them to handle the complexities of life. In fact, Clare Fox, of Keeling University, has suggested that the de-stigmatising of mental health has resulted in ‘the medicalising and pathologising of the simple ups and downs of life’. She goes on to argue schools are, ‘…ill equipping the young to develop their coping skills’; therefore, improvements drastically need to be made.

By educating young people about mental health in schools we can increase awareness and hope to encourage open and honest discussion among young people

Exams are reported to be the biggest worry for children and young people and I am increasingly being faced with high-achieving students who are struggling to cope with the pressure of exams, often fearing failure and presenting with a range of mental health problems.

In order to support teachers I have developed guidelines to help them with high-achieving student who may be presenting with anxiety due to the exam period. As a result, teachers at Lostock are aware that a student’s education should be about mental health and wellbeing, as well as academic inputs; I believe one cannot exist effectively without the other.

You also work with Shaw Mind Foundation; can you tell me about this?

I became involved with the Shaw Mind Foundation after reading an article about their petition in the Daily Mail earlier this year. Two years earlier I had set up a petition which was almost identical. However, as I only managed to reach a few thousand signatures, I joined with the Shaw Mind Foundation to help promote their petition. This reached over 100,000 signatures and so we are awaiting the date when it will be discussed in parliament.

The vision behind the petition is that we are shocked that mental health education is still not part of the UK curriculum despite the consistently high rates of child and adolescent mental health issues. By educating young people about mental health in schools we can increase awareness and hope to encourage open and honest discussion among young people. Although PHSE guidance on mental health and wellbeing has been developed for schools it has still not been made statutory, which we believe it needs to be.

Schools need to be aware of external services available to support a child or young person’s mental health or wellbeing as often they specialise in different areas of concern

Last month I met with a local MP in Wigan and she agreed to back our petition when debated in parliament. She has a particular interest in children and young people’s mental health so it is great to receive her support.

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For schools that, perhaps, don’t have access to a school counsellor such as yourself, where can they find support?

The most obvious specialist support would come from child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), although I am more than aware of how over-stretched most CAMHS teams are.  This often results in children and families being faced with long waiting times for both assessment and treatment. School nurses are another means of support and we are fortunate to have an amazing school nurse attached to our school. We have worked very well together for a number of years and this relationship has proven invaluable in supporting a child or young person.

An example of this is when working with previous students who have presented with low self-esteem and, perhaps, symptoms indicative of an eating disorder. Our school nurse completed sessions with the students around healthy eating, nutrition and body image while I carried out further appointments focusing on building self-esteem or improving their low mood. Over the years I have also worked successfully with children’s social care (CSC) who can provide various levels of support for a child, young person or family.

A key role schools can play in fostering a more nurturing/healthy school environment is by taking a whole-school approach to mental health

Schools need to be aware of external services available to support a child or young person’s mental health or wellbeing as often they specialise in different areas of concern. Lostock works closely with services such as Young Addaction, Key Mediation, The Children’s Society and Child Action North West. Ideally schools would dedicate one person to making the referrals and liaising with the different services about the child or young person. The different referral processes would need to be made clear to the person completing the referrals and they should subsequently inform relevant parties in school.

Support is offered to our teachers in the form of MindEd and SecEd. MindEd specifically focuses on mental health and providing support for school staff while SecEd often publishes many mental health related articles. More recently I have been made aware of Zumos, which is an online wellbeing package available for schools to support student’s mental health and wellbeing.

I’m also aware of a number of mental health apps which could be used by students to support their wellbeing; however little research has been carried out to fully explore their effectiveness.

Are there things that schools can implement to foster a more nurturing/healthy school environment that tends to the mental health needs of students and staff?

A key role schools can play in fostering a more nurturing/healthy school environment is by taking a whole-school approach to mental health and promoting good mental health around school. Increasing both staff and students’ understanding, and attempting to dissipate the stigma attached to mental health issues, will make it more likely that individuals will seek help when experiencing any difficulties. This is vital given how early intervention is often associated with improved outcomes for those suffering mental health problems.

The use of a nurture room in school would help to create a safe environment for students to go to when they are struggling to cope in school. We are fortunate to have the professional learning community in our school; however, I’m aware a lot of schools could, potentially, find this difficult to implement.

Similarly, the same should be true for staff in that they should have somewhere in school where they feel comfortable and are able to relax, most often the staff room.

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