Mental Health First Aid: Improving mental health provision in schools

7th November 2017

Caroline Hounsell, Director of Partnerships, Product Development and Training at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, blogs on the issue of youth mental health and improving mental health provision for teachers and pupils

Mental health is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges we face in the education sector at present. Recently, research by ComRes conducted for the BBC found that among 1,000 11-16 year olds surveyed, 70 per cent had experienced negative feelings in the past year, ranging from feeling upset and unhappy, to feeling anxious, frightened or unsafe. It’s estimated that half of young adults with mental health issues have symptoms by the age of 15, and nearly 75% by their late teens, with one in four children showing some evidence of mental ill health, including anxiety and depression.

These statistics highlight the poor levels of wellbeing and the high prevalence of mental illness among young people today. Social media, peer pressure, bullying and family units breaking down are all thought to be contributing factors, however issues affecting young people’s wellbeing can often remain undetected and untreated unless schools take an active role.

As well as protecting pupils, it’s also important for schools to think about a need to support staff. According to a survey of 2,000 teachers by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) published in April this year, 98 per cent said they had come into contact with pupils who were experiencing mental health issues, though only 46 per cent report receiving training on children’s mental health and recognising the signs of possible mental health issues in pupils. This tells us that many school staff already face situations where they are required to support young people with mental health issues with little or no training in how best to manage this.

An effective way to improve safeguarding and address this training gap, is to train a blend of staff in Youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). This training gives staff the skills, knowledge and confidence to identify mental health issues, start conversations around mental health and guide young people to a place of further support, be that self-help, school counselling services, or professional help.

Topics covered on Youth MHFA courses include; an introduction to mental health, depression and anxiety, suicide and psychosis and self-harm and eating disorders. The training includes a mix of presentations, group discussions and workshop activities, with qualified instructors providing a safe learning environment where participants are supported throughout. Significant emphasis is also placed on the importance of self-care and supporting one’s own, as well as peers’, mental health.
In this way, this training has the potential to improve the wellbeing not just of the individual trained, but of other staff in the school as well.

Participants are also encouraged to think about a ‘whole school’ approach to mental health, where all parts of the school community work together, and at every level, in their commitment to wellbeing. MHFA therefore forms an important part of an effective holistic approach, along with thorough mental health and safeguarding policies, health and wellbeing action groups and leaders who encourage the challenging of stigma.

Upskilling school staff in Youth MHFA is of course, only one part of the solution to improving approaches to supporting young people’s mental health. There is more work to be done when it comes to wider mental health services including Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Our hope, however, is that this training can be a positive first step on the ladder for many schools that may not have well developed approaches to promoting wellbeing, and a useful addition to those that do.

These approaches need to be woven authentically into the fabric of all organisations, including schools, and not regarded as a tick-box bolt on. We believe that this training should ultimately be incorporated into all initial teacher training so that it doesn’t have to be retrofitted into the busy teaching timetable and that non-teaching staff are given the opportunity to attend training within the school term.

Overall, addressing the challenges we face in this area and achieving the kind of cultural shift that the mental health community are working towards will require a considered, well informed and collaborative response. With your support, however, I believe creating mentally healthier schools in all areas of society, is ‘wholly’ achievable.

For more information about the Youth MHFA course being held at ISA House click here.

To find out more about Youth MHFA courses visit: mhfaengland.org/organisations/youth