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Blog: In schools and in life, our health is our greatest wealth
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4th November 2019

Lisa Fathers, Director of Alliance for Learning Teaching School and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England Instructor Member, discusses the importance of supporting young people and children with their mental health to round off Half Term: 

People can experience mental ill health at any age, but approximately 50% of mental health issues are established by age 14. And with one in ten young people experiencing a mental health issue at any one time, it’s important that those who work, support and live with young people can listen, reassure and respond, even in a crisis. It’s equally important that children and young people learn to look after their wellbeing, helping them to develop resilience early on.   

American social reformer, Frederick Douglass, said: “It’s easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men”. I try to keep this principle front of mind when thinking about how to approach mental health. Preventative strategies are important to prevent crisis from occurring, which is why I’m so passionate about building mentally healthy and supportive schools.  

With my background in education, as well as being trained as an MHFA England Instructor Member and a Mental Health First Aider, I have seen how receptive young children can be when talking about looking after their wellbeing. Ultimately, I want mental health to be treated as a normal part of life, in the same way that physical health is. Talking honestly and openly about mental health and wellbeing from a young age normalises the conversation and helps to dismantle stigma.  

The education system can support young people to become healthy adults, both physically and mentally, whether that be through understanding the benefits of sports, by developing mutually trusting relationships with teaching staff, or by gaining problem solving skills that can encourage resilience. Talking openly and listening more is an integral part of taking a preventative approach to mental ill health. Happy schools are where people and relationships matter more than results.  

I currently lead the Greater Manchester Mentally Healthy Schools and Colleges Project - a collaboration between Alliance for Learning Teaching School, Place2Be, children’s charity the Youth Sport Trust, and 42nd Street. During this project I have seen children build confidence and resilience through workshops led by athlete mentors, who have supported students by teaching coping strategies for a number of challenges that might be faced either in school or at home. Strategies have included creating and joining support networks, talking about and addressing stress, and practicing mindfulness techniques.  

Commissioned by Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership and involving 125 schools and colleges, the project has provided MHFA England training to teachers and support staff, enabling them to spot signs of poor mental health and offer support to students early on. Students have also become young mental health champions, acting as peer mentors for their classmates and raising mental health awareness. By doing so, they have learned that sometimes it’s okay to not be okay! Training young people as mentors and mental health advocates has a long-lasting impact on how they approach mental health and helps to reduce stigma.  

It’s equally important to provide teaching staff with the information and skills to look after their own mental health, so that they can protect their own wellbeing as well as set an example for young people. Our staff are our greatest resource, so we need to take great care to nurture them. Teaching staff cannot pour from an empty cup! They need to have the knowledge and resources to look after their mental health and protect it fiercely.  

With a record number of young people and children living with mental health issues, it is crucial that key figures in their lives can spot when they’re struggling and step in to provide support – every young person deserves it.