As more and more schools report increases in students with mental health problems, many heads are addressing student wellbeing and pastoral care with renewed energy this term.
The new SEN universal offer – in effect since last month – has brought an additional statutory obligation to address this issue too.
So, not surprisingly, there is an increasing demand for good advice for teachers on ways of helping young people who are having a hard time.
This autumn, as part of our own focus on mental health, SecEd has teamed up with Time to Change, the mental health campaigning body, to offer schools tried and tested ways to start conversations with students about this major pastoral issue.
Time to Change’s “Make Time in November” initiative is part of a major national media awareness campaign. Its free resources help schools to work through four steps (see later) in order to raise awareness and start the conversation about mental health.
Time to Change’s advice to teachers is all about keeping it simple and about understanding that you don’t have to be an expert to make a palpable difference to young people who are having problems with their mental health.
The organisation’s starting point – and the key to an effective whole-school approach – is addressing the stigma that surrounds mental health.
“We know from our research that nearly half of students with mental health problems are so afraid of the negative backlash that they have chosen not to tell anyone at school or college about what they’re going through,” explained Jenny Taylor, the national programme manager at Time to Change.
“They’re silenced by the stigma and worried they may be bullied as a result of their mental health at the very moment when they most need the support of friends and teachers.
“We need teachers to help make it more acceptable to talk openly about mental health problems and to counter those negative views of mental illness which tend to get locked in very early among young people.”
Schools that have already developed action plans for tackling stigma and discrimination with Time to Change are optimistic about the benefits.
Kate Steadman, from Bishop Vesey’s School in Sutton Coldfield, explained: “We want to create a school-wide atmosphere of tolerance towards mental health issues, raising awareness about discrimination, particularly in use of language, and allow pupils to challenge such language usage by their peers.
“We believe such tolerance enables students to talk about and seek appropriate help before issues become more serious.”
So how should schools set about getting the conversations moving that will create that atmosphere of tolerance towards mental health issues?
Moira Clewes of Sandwich Technology School – another school that is already an active Time to Change partner – sees it as a question of finding simple, easily adopted techniques.
She explained: “We did lots of little, achievable elements rather than a few larger pieces of work. They needed to be easy to arrange and something we could fit into the curriculum smoothly, but we also wanted the kids to enjoy them.”
Time to Change offers a whole range of helpful techniques and advice along those lines, including a useful set of tips on Talking about Mental Health (see below). But the emphasis this autumn is on a simple approach for assemblies or form time that breaks the challenge into four steps which help students build their understanding gradually.
What is mental health?
Step one is about looking at what mental health actually is. The central point here is that mental health is an ordinary everyday thing that everyone has and which fluctuates throughout people’s lives just like physical health.
There is no neat dividing line between those that are “fine” and those that have mental health problems. To illustrate the message, Time to Change suggests a simple hands-up exercise for assemblies. Ask students to put their hands up if they have physical health and then if they have mental health – there will usually be more in the first group than the second.
Then, as a way of getting students to understand the emotional experiences that make up our mental health, ask them to raise their hands if they have felt happy, stressed, angry, sad and so on during the past week.
Thinking about your own mental health
Step Two introduces students to the idea of thinking about their own mental health. Once again, the emphasis is on simple interventions that get students thinking and talking about mental health.
A useful form time exercise is asking students to exchange tips with their neighbour on what makes them feel better when they are sad. Time to Change then offers a “Make Time for Me” list of simple prompts that help young people identify what really helps them feel better, from chatting with friends to resisting checking the mobile for 30 minutes a day.
Helping your friends
Step three focuses on helping friends who might be having a tough time. The message here is that we can all make time for our mates – and that it’s often the little things that can make a difference like keeping friends involved or texting them to say hello.
It works well if students have a chance to think about things that might mean something to a friend who’s having a hard time – and then to share that with the person next to them.
Action on mental health
The final step is about inspiring students to take the campaign to end mental health stigma out into their community, encouraging them to feel part of a wider movement.
According to Time to Change, one of the most effective drivers of engagement with messages about mental health discrimination and stigma is conveying the idea that not just hundreds of other schools and thousands of students are involved, but that celebrities and other role models are behind the message as well.
The more noise being made, claims Time to Change, the more the silence around mental health is broken.
For Ms Clewes at Sandwich Technology School, it is really a question of normalising discussion about the issue. She continued: “We really wanted to raise awareness and get people talking about mental health more.
“It was only 10 years ago that we started talking about sex education at schools more, and now it’s discussed as a very everyday thing. Hopefully it will be the same for mental health.”
You don’t have to be an expert
Someone you know has a mental health problem. Ready to start your conversation? You don’t have to be an expert to talk about mental health.
Further informationMore than 200 schools have already signed up for the Make Time in November campaign, which offers resources centred around the four steps in this article. For details, visit www.time-to-change.org.uk/november
Talk, but listen too: simply being there will mean a lot.
Keep in touch: meet up, phone email or text.
Don’t just talk about mental health: chat about everyday things as well.
Remind them you care: small things can make a big difference.
Be patient: ups and downs can happen.