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Teaching Mental Health Education, Are We Ready?

There has been great progress in the narrative surrounding mental health and education and it is wonderful that Shaw Mind, through their tremendous Headucation campaign in 2017, achieved the compulsory teaching of mental health in schools from September 2020.

But this seismic change has taken time to evolve.

When I started in the profession in the 1990s my history of anxiety and anorexia needed to stay firmly hidden away. Yet today, when teaching about resilience and wellbeing, I feel liberated to talk about lived experience and how I embed my toolkit for resilience in my daily life.

I have chosen to upskill and invest in understanding how the adolescent brain develops, concepts of neuroplasticity and the fundamentals of mental health first aid. But for some this topic will prove daunting and they will lack the necessary knowledge to teach this area effectively.

Few teachers enter the profession with substantial background training in child or adolescent development, or how best to support children’s health and wellbeing. Only a minority of staff in schools think that the training or guidance they have received has helped them to support pupils with their wellbeing and mental health (National Assembly for Wales, CYPE Committee, 2017a).

Yet from September 2020 all children in England will be taught how to look after their mental wellbeing and recognise when classmates may be struggling, as the Government unveils new guidance for the introduction of compulsory health education.

Pupils of all ages will be taught the new subject – with a focus on promoting the positive link between physical and mental health.

Yet the guidance does not detail how to understand child brain development, emotional literacy or strategies for reducing stress with self-care.

Worryingly, research also shows that around half of teachers have struggled with their own mental health due to the pressures of work. Investing in training will not only benefit pupils but will help teachers look after their own emotional health.

Stress in adults can leak into young minds which is why we should also address teacher mental health using a whole school approach. Wellbeing provision in schools is inconsistent and varies greatly across the country. This has created a postcode lottery, where some schools effectively support children to build resilience and develop their social and emotional knowledge and skills, while other schools do not.

Teachers and school staff must be well-equipped to provide the right environment for learning and wellbeing. Teachers have reported that they are acting outside of their competence and capacity in relation to children’s mental health. Teachers are often not sufficiently trained to identify signs of mental health issues or to approach these issues confidently. Despite being well intentioned they are often unable to signpost their students to get help.

Therefore, it is essential that an understanding of children’s psychological development, wellbeing, resilience and mental health is embedded into Initial Teacher Training and Continued Professional Development. This is necessary to ensure that all teachers have the basic knowledge and skills to be able to promote the wellbeing of students and to respond effectively to mental health concerns.

They must also receive appropriate support to deliver a whole-school approach to wellbeing and resilience through the curriculum, school culture and beyond.

Victoria English is an award-winning speaker, lecturer and mental health consultant specialising in mental and emotional health, special educational needs and corporate wellbeing.