Whole-school mental health – a school counsellor's perspective

Written by: Charlotte Lowe | Published:
Image: iStock

School counsellor Charlotte Lowe discusses some of the strategies her school uses to support students’ good mental health

The number of children and young people requiring support for mental health problems is argued to be on the rise (Lamb, 2017). Schools are therefore finding it increasingly difficult to deliver provision for the large number of students experiencing mental distress.

Since children spend so much time at school, teachers are in an ideal position to identify signs and symptoms of mental health problems. However, teachers are not trained mental health professionals and they should not be expected to fulfil this role.

Although many agree mental health problems in children and young people have increased, the validity of this has been debated. Fox (2016) questions the “loose” terminology used in mental health, emphasising the importance of distinguishing between mental health, mental health problems and mental illness.

She argues how some children and young people are simply experiencing the difficulties faced during the adolescence period and would not officially receive a mental health diagnosis. This results in the limited services and resources available failing to reach those most in need and who actually have a diagnosable mental illness.

Conversely, Byron (2017) reported on the increased challenges faced by children and young people in contributing to the rise, and quotes the impact of social media and the increased academic pressures young people face.

From personal experience of working as a school counsellor I do believe more young people are suffering from mental health problems, but I also recognise how in a number of cases this might be a result of them students struggling to cope with this stage of their lives.

Mental Health First Aid

Earlier this year, prime minister Theresa May announced funding to enable schools to allocate one person to receive Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training, with the aim for this to be fed back to all staff.

This policy is intended to give school staff a greater understanding of mental health issues and the knowledge of where to go in order to access further support for any young people they are concerned about.

A clear system needs to be in place and it is good practice for schools to routinely follow a mental health policy, making sure it is available to staff, governors, parents and carers.

Providing school staff with mental health training is essential as often students prefer to talk to them rather than engage with the school counsellor or outside services. Training would enable staff to feel more confident when faced with any potential difficult conversations or situations.

Specialists

In an ideal world schools would secure funding to employ a mental health specialist who could work with students on an individual basis as well as running therapeutic groups in school. However, realistically the school budget does not stretch this far and most schools cannot afford to buy-in this much-needed support.

It is advisable for schools to have a designated mental health worker who could act as a single point of contact to liaise with outside agencies, such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) or Children’s Social Care. This helps to ensure consistency and transparency in a young person’s care.

In addition, it would be useful for the single point of contact to make sure they have a thorough understanding of the support services on offer outside of school and how to access this support.

These services are sometimes available free of charge which is important given the current economic climate faced by schools.

In-school support

Projects such as the Mindfulness in Schools Project exist and should be explored by schools, as these offer ways to support both staff and student’s wellbeing.

There are a number of ways schools can try to support their students suffering from a mental health problem or mental illness. Maintaining close links with outside agencies and being aware of what specialist help is available is essential to ensure those with a diagnosable mental illness are referred for the necessary support.

However, it is possible for students suffering from lower level mental health problems to be effectively supported in school.

The roles of pastoral staff are vital for the smooth running of any school and they are in an ideal position to offer provision for students suffering from less serious problems.

Within our school a number of booklets have been developed as an aid for staff to use when supporting a student suffering from a mental health problem, such as anger management or low self-esteem.

Additionally resources for teaching staff have been created to help them when working with certain groups of students, such as Guidelines for Working with the High Achieving Students. These offer strategies school staff can employ to support those experiencing mental health difficulties.

Schools are in an ideal position to teach basic mental health awareness, helping children and young people to understand how their minds work and giving them the opportunity to recognise ways in which they can support their own mental health.

Positive mental health should be promoted across the whole school, making use of assemblies and PSHE lessons wherever possible. It is essential to try to tackle the stigma of mental health, to normalise mental health issues and help young people to understand that these are a part of life.

Statutory PSHE lessons focused on mental wellbeing and building resilience will encourage students to develop the skills needed to cope with life’s difficulties.

Another way schools can support a student’s mental health is through the development of peer support systems. In our school, students in key stage 4 received basic mental health training and subsequently worked as peer mentors to the younger students.

It was essential to make clear to the young people the problems they could manage and conversely the ones which needed to be escalated. This peer support network helped to reduce the pressure on staff and acted as an effective support system within school.

Parents

It is essential for parents to work alongside school and the services which exist outside of school. Parents need to be educated to understand issues such as self-harm and how to recognise signs of mental ill-health in their children. They need to be aware of what to do if they are worried about their child and they need to be clear about the support available and how to access it.

CAMHS

CAMHS across the country are struggling to cope with the demand and it has been estimated that
25 per cent of the referrals made to CAMHS are declined (Devon, 2016). Similarly the length of time waiting for an assessment at CAMHS has generally increased across the country with a waiting time of 40 weeks being reported in some areas.

It is possible for schools to now bypass the child’s GP and refer directly into CAMHS, which is advantageous for young people, but also has the potential to result in significantly more referrals being made to CAMHS. If schools do appoint a designated mental health lead they could be responsible for carrying out a brief assessment on each student to help determine the level of support required.

This may help to sift out those students who are experiencing mental health problems and who could potentially be supported in school, ensuring those suffering from a mental health illness are referred for more specialist support.

Conclusion

It is concerning that figures on the exact number of young people experiencing mental health difficulties have not been updated since the last prevalence study was completed in 2004. A true representation as to the severity of the problem is therefore lacking. However, what is clear is that schools are facing increased pressure to support those students experiencing mental distress even following the cuts to their school budget. There is therefore an urgency to try to develop and employ practical strategies in school, while avoiding adding further pressure to the already over-worked staff.

  • Charlotte Lowe is a school counsellor at Lostock Hall Academy in Preston.

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