Four steps to creating a mentally healthy school

Written by: Dick Moore | Published:
Image: iStock

Dick Moore offers four steps to ensuring a meaningful response to mental and emotional ill-health in schools

The World Health Organisation now believes that one in five young people will self-harm. Sadly, only 25 per cent of young people who need treatment for mental or emotional health problems receive it. In order to respond meaningfully to problems of emotional and mental ill-health in schools, there are four key steps school leaders can take.

1 Understanding

Identify, understand and accept the extent of the problem at your school: 32 per cent of teenagers will experience suicidal thoughts and one in every 10 school children are suffering from a diagnosable mental health problem. Worryingly, this figure increases to one in every six students in further education. Give young people the chance to talk and be listened to in order to assess the mental wellbeing of your school.

2 Key skills

Recognise what should be the essence of education and work collaboratively with like-minded schools – even if they are “competitors”. Operating in silos, as has been the way in the past, brings us no closer to finding the solution. Instead, by sharing experiences and collaborating on mental health education, we can increase our understanding of the problem at hand and equip ourselves with the tools and processes to solve it. Five skills should be at the centre of what every teacher of every subject at every level says and does:

  • Responsible decision-making.
  • Self-awareness.
  • Self-management.
  • Social awareness.
  • Relationship skills.

Such skills are each more important than any individual subject and should be integral to all teaching and learning.

3 Difficult choices

Be prepared to make difficult choices between conflicting priorities – ticking boxes is not good enough. Open the can of worms. Nothing meaningful will come easily. All schools will tell you that the welfare of their pupils is their top priority but very few match those words with actions. They are too concerned with maintaining their place among the elite, or passing regulatory inspections and jumping through government hoops.

It is tempting to broadcast Oxbridge success or sporting triumph and hide away the growing levels of self-harm, anxiety, eating disorders and depression. We sometimes hear about young people who take their own lives; we never hear about those who make the attempt but, thankfully, do not succeed. And there are many, many more than any of us would imagine.

We must consider: what are the real priorities in a child’s education? We need to be bold, honest and imaginative – trying things that have not been tried before, endeavouring to meet the needs of the world as it is now and as it will be – not as it once was.

4 The culture

Change the culture of your school by educating and motivating the four main constituencies – pupils, parents, teachers and governors. It isn’t just about educating young people. That’s the easy part. It is about changing the mindset of governors, staff and parents. To start creating a mentally healthy school, there needs to be a willingness to approach all these constituencies with energy and determination, together with investment in skills. A whole-school symposium on the purpose of education is a good place to start.

Further practical steps

  • • Provide opportunities, training and time for teachers to listen – without judging.
    • Don’t just employ a counsellor, develop a network of professionals within school and outside it to facilitate professional treatment.
    • Ensure each teacher is aware that he/she will add or detract from a pupil’s reservoir of self-confidence – positively or negatively.
    • Build resilience in the classroom: we can change the shape of children’s brains!
    • Allow children to make mistakes – that’s how they learn best.


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