Improving mental health in schools lines up with the theme for World Mental Health Day on 10th October 2020, as set by the World Federation for Mental Health of “mental health for all”. Investing in mental health in schools also aligns with the World Health Organisation campaign goal of “increased investment in mental health”.
The WHO recognises that this comes “at a time when our daily lives have changed considerably as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic”. And that… “The past months have brought many challenges: … for students, adapting to taking classes from home, with little contact with teachers and friends, and anxious about their futures”.
On this theme, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, in her recent report Childhood in the Time of Covid has called for a “recovery package” to help children, especially the most vulnerable, recover from their experiences of the past six months and the ongoing crisis:
“Even before the crisis struck, there were 2.2 million children in England living in households affected by any of the so-called ‘toxic trio’ of family issues: domestic abuse, parental drug and/or alcohol dependency, and severe parental mental health issues, including … 1.6 million living with parents with severe mental health conditions.”
Equally, we are well aware of the immediate issues facing schools, including:
- the logistics of pupil management on school premises
- unpredictability of local lockdowns
- shortage of time to deliver even the core curriculum
- difficulties around organising and delivering online learning
- the challenges of providing for the emotional needs of all students
- greater incidence of safeguarding concerns
- staff shortages due to colleagues needing to self-isolate
- covering for absent colleagues
- heightened parental stress leading to greater potential for conflict
- school budgetary and funding issues
- resulting levels of staff stress due to all of the above pressures on top of their own health/personal/family concerns
In this situation, what can we do to begin to put a recovery package in place to promote mental health in schools, and then to move forward into a more stable situation in the medium term? What kinds of ‘investment’ will bring a helpful ‘return’ in terms of better mental health in schools, in the way recognised by the Welsh Government, which has rolled out a comprehensive programme of investment to put mental health on the curriculum in Wales from 2020?
Perhaps the biggest challenge for school leaders is how to find time away from daily firefighting in the pandemic situation. Time to invest in understanding the scale and magnitude of the issues facing each pupil, each member of staff, and the school as a whole. Time to begin to put resources and systems in place to address key stressors and areas of need.
This provision mapping of mental health support in schools is likely to range across:
- a robust PSHE curriculum
- focussed interventions for pupils both within school, and from outside providers of child/adolescent mental health and counselling services (such as CAMHS in England and Place2Be in England, Scotland and Wales)
- staff support tools and access to counselling, to try to prevent chronic stress and potential burnout
- mechanisms to assess the efficacy of measures and make refinements to provision as needed
In setting priorities among these, one good place to start is asking all staff about their concerns, both about pupils’ needs and about their own wellbeing, perhaps in the form of a survey.
Planning and setting up such approaches will take an investment of time upfront, at a time when time itself is particularly scarce in schools. The pay off, though, is that they will both help to manage the immediate situation and are an investment that lays the foundations for systemic and far-reaching provision to improve mental health in schools for students and staff over the medium and long term.
World Mental Health Day 2020, on 10th October, is focussed on “mental health for all” and “increased investment in mental health”. Investing in mental health in schools, for both students and staff, lines up with these objectives. In the context of the pandemic, despite limited time to think beyond immediate crisis management, seeking out and investing in support for pupils and staff will contribute both to managing the stresses of the situation in the short and medium term and to improving mental health in schools for the long term.
By Ava S. Hasan & The Mentally Well Schools Team
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