March 2021 edition: Mentally Healthy Schools: Opening up Conversations about Mental Health

Mentally Healthy Schools: Opening up Conversations about Mental Health

The pandemic, and successive lockdowns, will have impacted on children and young people’s mental health in a number of significant ways. They may have experienced loneliness, isolation, or increased conflict at home. Some will be happy to be back in the school routine. However, others may struggle with returning to the structure of a school day, and some may be anxious about going back into the classroom. 

Here at the Anna Freud Centre, we have done new research into what students themselves say their mental health needs are. We questioned over 3,000 young people aged between 11 and 19 across the UK, and the findings are reported in 'Working towards mentally healthy schools and colleges: the voice of students'. We found that 93% of young people want mental health education brought into the classroom, and for conversations about mental health to be normalised in schools and FE colleges. The most pressing topics were depression and anxiety, body image and identity.  

Embedding mental health into the curriculum is important because it demonstrates to students that their school actively cares about their wellbeing, and places it on a par with their physical wellbeing.

Cait Cooper

The research finds that staff in schools and FE colleges are valued by students as trusted sources of information and support, with 52% of young people saying they would talk to a member of staff about their concerns. For those who would seek support from someone in school, they are most likely to turn to a trusted teacher. However, while schools have made great advances in supporting their students, our findings reveal that there is still more work to be done to open up conversations about mental health. 

What can school leaders do?  

School leaders are vital in bringing an awareness of mental health issues into the classroom. They can: 

  • Normalise conversations about mental health – through assemblies, lessons or class discussions. 

  • Signpost sources of support – so the students in your school clearly know where to turn if they need help. Use classroom and hallway displays to signpost the support available, whether that is external support (like counselling) or suggested helplines and websites. 

  • Train staff – school leaders can ensure that all staff are ready for those conversations if they occur, through training and CPD. 

This is just the start. Embedding mental health into the curriculum is important because it demonstrates to students that their school actively cares about their wellbeing, and places it on a par with their physical wellbeing. It also helps to normalise discussions on mental health in a school setting, meaning that students may feel more comfortable asking for help when they need it. 

A school’s ethos and environment will have a significant impact on the wellbeing of both staff and students. It’s important for leaders and governors to define that culture and vision, making it clear what behaviours, values and beliefs underpin it. 

What is a whole-school approach to mental health?

The survey findings point to the value of a whole-school or college approach, where all school staff, parents and carers, governors, and students work together to promote mental health.  

A whole-school approach is about developing a positive ethos and culture, where everyone feels that they belong. It involves working with families and making sure that the school community is welcoming, inclusive and respectful. It means maximising children’s learning through promoting good mental health and wellbeing across the school – through the curriculum, early support for pupils, staff-pupil relationships, leadership and a commitment from everybody. 

A whole-school approach will help all children and young people develop the essential social and emotional skills they need to cope effectively with setbacks and remain healthy, and this in turn will boost their ability to succeed at school and in later life. 

What is the role of school leaders?

It is important for school leadership to build a culture of Trust where staff feel valued, can be open about their health and wellbeing, and know how to access support if they need it. For this to happen, it is essential for the leadership team and governors to model good mental health and wellbeing behaviour and practice. 

School leaders can: 

  • Conduct a confidential survey into staff wellbeing, to identify key issues for staff and areas for improvement.

  • Train staff members to learn more about mental health and approaching the topic – for example, Mental Health First Aid can be a good starting point. 

  • Ensure support systems for staff are clearly identified and signposted – for example, through an employee assistance programme, or even just ensuring that all staff know and understand your school’s staff wellbeing policy. 

There are many resources available to teachers, and it can be difficult for schools to know where to begin. The Mentally Healthy Schools website collects trusted resources, from different organisations, all in one place. The resource library is filterable by age range, theme and resource type, so that school leaders and classroom teachers can easily find practical, quality assured resources. We also run Schools in Mind, a free network for education professionals which shares practical, academic and clinical expertise about mental health and wellbeing in schools and FE colleges.

This is a critical time for schools, and never before has it been so important that together we open up conversations about mental health. 

Anna Freud is a CST Strategic Partner.