It was September 2015, first day back INSET day, I was given the stage to explain to our staff WHY there was a need for my new role – to be Head of student mental health and wellbeing.
In 2015, this role hardly existed in schools and as you can imagine, the room was filled with pockets of staunch teacher scepticism.
But that morning, I was driven by my WHY
Why the need?
As I faced my colleagues to make a case, I held the faces of many students in my mind.
Those young people, over the years, who’d hung around my classroom door wanting to chat to me….some had sexual orientation challenges, others anxiety issues, a few were early stages of self-harming, some being bullied, others considerably lonely but I , like so many other teachers, had very limited time to listen to them and in those days, feeling helpless – the norm was to refer these children to an overburdened and understaffed SEN – when I knew and they knew – their struggle was not about learning needs.
Their struggle was Mental Health.
Our school was rapidly becoming a typical example of the mental health crisis being cited in Department of Education papers:
One in ten children and young people (5-16) have clinically diagnosed mental health disorders and approximately one in seven has less severe problems (cited in Department of Education: Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools, June 2014).
Two years later…
I have a new stage.
This time, I’m not here to make a case, but to celebrate!
To celebrate the infinite possibilities that exist for teachers and tens of thousands of students…..
To celebrate that it is possible – for every school to develop a robust proactive and pre-emptive mental health support program
Here is a quick overview of some of the measures we rolled out at The Magna Carta School in Staines-upon-Thames.
When it comes to rolling out your mental health and wellbeing initiatives think 6-pronged approach: Research; whole school values; physical resources; staff training and wellbeing; peer mentoring; parent and community engagement; PSHE and cross-curriculum resources.
Do your research. School based research is vital. Every community is different as will their needs be. Conduct student and staff focus groups and surveys into the mental health and wellbeing barometer of your school. Don’t be afraid to hear the truth. The data will drive your initiatives and ensure you have grass roots ownership with all the changes.
Change the language of learning to ensure our mental health is seen as important as achieving good grades.
Destigmatize the topic ‘mental health.’ Our school wall murals, designed by artist Matt Lambert, publicly start the conversation about our mental health. They are given as much importance as our Growth Mind-set murals found elsewhere round the school
Start at the top. Staff wellbeing is vital. Make sure you run a parallel program looking at staff wellbeing and run a ‘You said We did’ respons within the term of conducting your survey. Make a concerted effort for leadership to model good working practice and life/work balance.
Re-evaluate the values you champion as a school. In the lead up to Christmas we roll out our #familyMH5aday campaign with years 7 and 8 and champion the G.R.E.A.T values. These values encourage us to make small life style changes in the direction of life/work balance, bigger picture and positive mental health.
I was delighted to see one teacher encourage students to use this language when talking about exam preparation and devising their revision schedules. Placing emphasis on their wellbeing is vital to ensuring academic progress.
Separate Mental Health support from SEN support. Although sometimes they are inextricably linked; the interventions required are very different. Young people are more likely to self-refer or accept support for mental health if they feel that we recognize the difference between mental health and learning needs
Based on our research we knew we had to create spaces to ensure the young people knew where to go; when to go and who they could expect to speak to – hence the wellbeing zone. You don’t need to build new rooms you simply map your wellbeing zone with curriculum spaces. For example, by lesson time the rooms are Humanities and ICT but at lunchtimes the corridor comes alive as the wellbeing zone.
You don’t need to hire new staff – look at strengths within your own staff . Our role as schools is not to diagnose but instead to ensure we are proactive and pre-emptive. To make a start, You do not ‘have to have’ an in-house counselor or trained therapist. Yes, of course it would be ideal to have this professional resource and support in every school but realistically speaking, with budget cuts, this is just not possible at the moment.
What you do need are empathetic, caring compassionate peers and teachers who are properly trained in being able to spot the signs; have a conversation with the student and a robust internal referral and tracking system for intervention work. This is achievable.
Assign a senior member of staff to lead and a governing body member to have it as part of their portfolio. Free up 1 member of staff who is a non-teacher and not a TA to be your youth mental health student co-coordinator. Look at the extra curricular strengths and interests found in your staff body and tap into their expertise. One of our English teachers – is also a qualified yoga teacher . As part of our intervention and support she is timetabled to deliver hatha yoga and mindfulness as a weekly intervention for students suffering from increasing anxiety and panic attacks. She also offers a weekly yoga class for our staff to support their wellbeing.
Train your students and staff properly. We used RELATE the charity to train our wellbeing student ambassadors and The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust offer superb resources for staff training. We are also looking forward to our Mental Health First Aid training coming up in a few weeks.
Think out the box with your interventions. We have in place opportunities for 1:1 and group work but sometimes – for numerous reasons- the young person does not want to sit and talk. Finding time for intervention work during the school day is also difficult.
In response to this we have rolled out extra-curricular intervention support which may last a few weeks or a few days:
The Love Bread challenge: Students learnt all about the science of making their own bread and then they got to bake their own pizzas, focaccias and take a ‘mother’ sourdough starter home to feed and nurture.
The Chef’s Challenge: Students cooked a different 2 course meal each week, set up by chef Mark Lloyd, and then sat down to eat & chat celebrating each other’s efforts in cooking their evening dinner.
The Bicycle Challenge: Old bicycles have been donated and under the guidance of 2 enthusiastic bike engineer teachers, from the DT department, they are being taught how to remove worn bits and re-assemble with new parts so they can cycle away with it.
The Bush craft Challenge: Students got to explore Survival Bush craft skills: fire lighting, tracking, shelter building, Nature art, campfire cooking, outdoor trust games, 1 to1 sessions, personal development exercises and Mindfulness in nature
What was essential was:
The Staff used were ready to move out of their teaching roles and get on a level playing field with the young person and complete a creative task with them, engaging in discussions and listening with compassion and empathy. Students feel deeply appreciative when they are simply understood – not evaluated, not judged, simply understood from their own point of view, not the teacher’s.
Track your interventions measuring impact. We have trialled out various systems including a software called Provision mapping so our SEN, Behavioural and Mental health interventions can all be tracked in one place ensuring we effectively triage before an intervention is rolled out; we don’t double up; are all joined up and get an overall picture of a student’s progress.
Engage your parents and local community. We have a parent wellbeing ambassadors network group who have advised on how we could conduct the #familyMH5aday campaign mentioned earlier and, together with a local charity East To West, hosted half termly ‘parent headspace’ chat sessions.
Use your PSHE lessons to effectively deliver mental health awareness lessons and to teach positive mental health strategies. We are in our first year of rolling out MINDUP which is a 15-week mindfulness and resilience program being delivered in PSHE to over 200 year 8 students.
Think cross-curricular and embrace the theme through your subjects. We got a class of mixed ability year 9 media students to build their own mental health and wellbeing app called My TeenMind. They built it with the help of Gaia tech and the support of local charity Woking Mind. This app is now part of a 7 lesson PSHE scheme of work where the students are presented with fictitious scenarios about a peer and they have to explore and use the app to find the right information to help signpost support.
Finally, there is no quick fix. Don’t think a 1 day or 6 -week intervention will ‘sort’ the problem out.
The key to a school based mental health program is about ensuring our staff and our young people are literate about their mental and emotional health; that they take ownership of it; that there is no shame in talking about it; and that there are spaces and people who are trained and have time to listen enabling us to make informed choices when we are faced with the inevitable struggles that life will throw at us.
Blog written to mark 2017 World Mental Health Day.