Sometimes young people just want to talk, says Lisa Fathers, who explains how the devolved administration in Greater Manchester has trained up teachers and peer mentors to provide mental health support in schools
The recent figures from the Children’s Commissioner highlighting that a third of areas in England are reducing real-terms spending on vital mental health services such as counsellors is worrying. The numbers underline why all individuals working in a school environment need skills to be able to recognise and help children requiring mental health support, but who may not qualify for specialist treatment.
With mental health issues manifesting themselves in a variety of ways including anxiety, depression, and lack of self-confidence, those in a school setting have a duty of care to spot the signs early enough and early intervention is more important than ever. What also really matters is adopting a whole-school approach, where pupils understand health and wellbeing, yet can also recognise poor mental health, in addition to feeling that they can talk to their peers or seek the relevant help. Of course, staff wellbeing underpins this completely.
Here at the Alliance for Learning – a teaching school which is part of Altrincham Grammar School for Girls and the Bright Futures Educational Trust – we have a far-reaching strategy to support schools in our network and beyond. Schools sit at the heart of communities and the vital role that teachers play in supporting a child’s wellbeing should be given more credit.
The teaching school has embedded mental health first aid (MHFA) into the courses for teacher training (new entrants to the profession) and through the CPD offer for experienced teachers and support staff, over 3,000 individuals across the north west have been trained in MHFA.
The teaching school is also one of the partners involved in leading an innovative project: Mentally Healthy Schools in Greater Manchester. Commissioned by the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, teachers have been given mental health first aid training and young people have become mental health champions. The scheme which is a collaboration between Alliance for Learning Teaching School, Place2Be, Youth Sport Trust and 42nd Street has also provided a simpler, easier way to refer into Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
In secondary schools the Youth Sport Trust led workshops with athlete mentors and 42nd Street with a mixture of students, some of whom were identified as suffering from school-related stress and anxiety. The athletes used their experiences of managing stress and anxiety when performing at a high level to support pupils. Students were encouraged to develop their own personal plan for using physical activity, lifestyle choices and coping strategies to manage their own exam-related stress and anxiety.
The training of young mental health champions was also designed and delivered by Youth Sport Trust to enable the champions to act as peer mentors for their classmates. This involved conducting a mental health project of their choice within the schools. Evaluation has shown they felt empowered and optimistic that they could make a difference in their schools.
Also as part of the pilot, Place2Be led the mental health champions training for school leaders, aiming to work with two individuals from each of the schools. This involved workshops and consultation meetings with the objective of positively changing the whole school ethos towards mental health.
As a result of the two-phase pilot involving 64 primary and secondary schools across Greater Manchester, we have seen that many children said talking openly about mental health gave them more self-confidence. Individuals have learnt to overcome instances of low self-esteem and early intervention has most importantly saved lives. In addition to the positive impact on pupils, teachers and school leaders also reported being more aware of the need to improve their own health and wellbeing, delivering holistic benefits for the school overall.
While improved funding for mental health services is crucial and welcome, we need to place greater emphasis on recognising that many children just want to be able to talk to someone to stop their problems from escalating. Having the skills to spot early enough when someone is in need can make all the difference.
Lisa Fathers is Director of Teaching School and Partnerships, Alliance for Learning (part of the Bright Futures Educational Trust) and a Mental Health First Aid National Trainer & Instructor