A collaborative approach to mental health support

Written by: Lisa Fathers | Published:
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Adopting a collaborative approach and developing your existing networks can help improve the mental health of students and teachers. Lisa Fathers explains how this approach has worked in Greater Manchester

The government’s Green Paper, Transforming children and young people’s mental health provisions (Department of Health, Department of Education, 2017), sets out the ambition that children and young people who need help for their mental health are able to get it, when they need it.

In response to this, the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership (GMHSCP) wanted to take a proactive approach, focusing on earlier intervention and prevention of poor mental health.

Last September, phase one of the Greater Manchester Mentally Healthy Schools Rapid Pilot involving 31 primary and secondary mainstream schools, special schools and PRUs, was launched.

The schools were recruited by Alliance for Learning Teaching School and the success of the scheme has meant that a second phase involving 64 schools began in January this year. A third phase has also been announced to include 125 schools, colleges and PRUs, almost doubling the project in size.

The project has explored new ways of preventing mental health issues in young people through school-based interventions via a collaboration between:

  • Alliance for Learning, a Greater Manchester Teaching School that leads and coordinates the programme and provides mental health first aid training.
  • The Youth Sports Trust, a children’s charity with a mission to improve young people’s wellbeing and which delivers the programme in schools through its athlete mentors.
  • 42nd Street, a children and young person’s mental health charity.
  • Place2Be, a children’s mental health charity.
  • Local mental health services.
  • Develop a school-to-school support network where best practice and expertise can be shared to adopt a whole school approach to improving wellbeing and mental health. Another school might take a slightly different approach to the way you do something, so set up a regular forum where you can discuss challenges and solutions in confidence. Using a Teaching School network would be a sensible approach for this.
  • Bring physical and mental health together – the two are equally important and are completely intertwined. You can do this by using the expertise of the PE team who already encourage students to be more active as we know physical exercise reduces stress and improves self-esteem. Simple things like introducing the daily mile can also work.
  • Every school will have students who are ready-made wellbeing ambassadors. Encouraging members of the school council or those who may be involved in sports and leadership roles to offer guided peer-to-peer support can be a powerful tool in starting discussions around wellbeing.
  • Conversations are key and having someone there who students feel comfortable talking to is important. It may not necessarily be the pastoral lead as individuals such as mid-day assistants and support staff can also be excellent listeners. If they have basic knowledge of mental health first aid, they will be able to spot signs and help pick up on subtle clues if someone is struggling with something.

Initial evaluation for phase one was carried out by the University of Manchester involving both qualitative and quantitative methods including surveys from those involved in the training and young people, plus focus groups and case study visits. It assessed the effectiveness in terms of whether there was reduction in absenteeism and behavioural instances in designated groups, an increase in staff competence and confidence to support and refer, changes in self-reported attitudinal data relating to school life, changes in self-reported happiness and wellbeing, in addition to whether or not there was an impact on the wellbeing of designated staff themselves.

As a result of phase one, 62 senior leaders in schools received Mental Health Champion training (four workshops and two consultations delivered by Place2Be) aimed at positively changing the whole school ethos and ensuring each school had someone responsible for supporting mental health wellbeing in students and staff.

School leaders reported increased confidence in dealing with students with mental health issues, improved knowledge about how to refer students to specialist services and increased awareness about the importance of staff health and wellbeing.

Mental health first aid (MHFA) youth training was delivered to two middle leaders in each school (a total of 53) by Alliance for Learning with a half-day MHFA Lite course delivered to 60 support staff. This aimed to improve confidence, competence, knowledge and motivation in supporting young people with their mental health.

Children often like to talk to people they know and trust. Sometimes that one person is a teacher. At one school, as a result of the training, the safeguarding lead recognised the signs of depression in a year 11 student early on and they had the confidence to make a referral.

In another secondary school, a vice principal and pastoral lead highlighted how the programme focused the objectives of their team, resulting in them employing a fully trained counsellor. While pastoral care there is now more focused on mental health, the whole school has taken ownership of this and the training also led to the school looking at staff needs, with CPD now being tailored to colleague wellbeing. It has also brought the team closer together from a social point of view and has enabled them to take a more solutions-focused approach to challenges.

I believe everyone, not just those in the teaching profession, should have the opportunity to learn mental health first aid because it can have an incredible impact. The MHFA training has shown those involved how to guide individuals to places of support as well as equipping them with the skills to support positive wellbeing. The courses do not teach people to be therapists, but they help individuals to listen, reassure and respond.

I have found that teachers who become more “mental health aware” do start to look after their own wellbeing more and practise more self-care. Equally it gives teachers more confidence to have those tricky conversations with children and ask curious questions.

We wanted to develop young people’s physical and emotional literacy by providing the right training, support and resources for an adult and young person workforce. Selected groups of secondary school students at all the schools involved in phase one received co-designed and co-facilitated Youth Sport Trust and 42nd Street workshops.

This involved athlete mentors from the Youth Sport Trust working with students to develop their own personal plan for using physical activity, lifestyle choices and coping strategies to manage their own wellbeing. Students took part in activities such as drawing support networks, talking about stress and feelings, and tried out breathing techniques. Workshops delivered by Youth Sport Trust and Place2Be were also tailored to a primary audience for year 5 students in 14 schools.

A total of 90 secondary students received training from Youth Sport Trust and 42nd Street to become Young Mental Health Champions (YMHCs) acting as peer mentors. A total of 67 primary students were also trained.

Overall, 93 per cent of secondary YMHCs reported increased knowledge about health and wellbeing. A young mental health champion who suffered from depression and experienced suicidal thoughts in secondary school said: “Having individuals coming in from outside school helped us to see the benefits of getting involved. We had a session with world champion Thai boxer, Rachael Mackenzie, our athlete mentor and she was inspirational.

“The mentors gave us teamwork activities and we were all nervous at first. When we shared our experiences they truly came from the heart and we began to trust one another as time went on.Throughout our sessions we grew in confidence and we could see that more of our peers wanted to get involved.”

Working in partnership across the public sector and beyond has been key to the success of this pilot resulting in a second and third phase being implemented. We have seen that schools have valued the additional support and access to expertise which has given leaders time to take stock and decide on a course of action. The project has also empowered young people and will have a long-term impact on how they approach mental health.

A small number of schools initially expressed concerns about workload, and these were explored with an honest conversation. Feedback from schools after the initial phase was widely positive in terms of the measured outcomes, with 96 per cent of teaching staff agreeing that programme has been beneficial to their school.

Mindfulness has now been embedded into some of the schools and many have been encouraged to rethink the importance of art, music and PE within school, suggesting a child gets involved more in what they enjoy – for example trying new creative or sport sessions to develop coping strategies.

While this project is part of a £134 million action plan announced in 2017 to help to transform mental health in Greater Manchester for children and adults, I recognise that not every school has this level of resource, but you can get creative with the resources you already have.

If you are a smaller school, working with existing colleagues, students and nearby schools can really help. Some of the pointers below may also get you started.

  • Lisa Fathers is director of teaching school and partnerships at the Alliance for Learning (part of Bright Futures Educational Trust). She is also a national trainer with MHFA England.Visit http://allianceforlearning.co.uk/ and follow her @lisafathersAFL

Further information

  • Mental Health in Schools and Colleges, DfE, August 2017: http://bit.ly/2xhnKIR
  • Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision: A Green Paper, DfE, December 2017 (updated with government response to consultation, July 2018): http://bit.ly/2nOHFel
  • For details of the Youth MHFA training, visit http://bit.ly/2zXwhkE
  • The Daily Mile is a free initiative that sees children run or jog for 15 minutes every day in their primary and nursery schools: https://thedailymile.co.uk/


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