Four proactive strategies for mental health in schools

The Department for Health and Social Care are consulting on a new strategy focused on ‘proactive, predictive and personalised care’ aimed at prevention rather than fixing problems once they emerge.

This is a wide-ranging consultation addressing diet, smoking, physical activity, immunisations, genetics and resistance to medications. This article looks at the mental health aspects in so far as they relate to children and young people and the role of schools.

  1. Minimise risk and maximise protection

The strategy aims to ‘take urgent action to address the risk factors to mental ill-health’. These are the steps that most good schools are already doing.

Risk factors to mental ill-health are well known and something that every school all help to address: discrimination, bullying, social isolation, as well as some which are require system and additional support: poor housing, violence, adverse childhood events.

Alongside these are the protective factors which are important for all children, more so for those at risk: good attachments in childhood, friendships, feeling safe, feeling valued and respected.

  1. Talk about mental health

Develop ‘emotional literacy’ so that children and indeed adults are more able to discuss mental health. By equipping students to have the skills, knowledge and confidence to improve their mental health the school is providing a life-long lesson which will reap many benefits.

Key to this is students having the self-awareness so that they can spot the signs of mental distress and know where to seek help. Of course, the same applies to adults. The new Health Education Curriculum, mandatory in schools from 2020, will help with this. However, we know that there will be big gaps and schools and colleges need support. Minds Ahead has recently worked with national charities across the UK to develop a resilience building toolkit and programme, Bloom, for 14-18 year olds.

The DfE have announced that they are to train new teachers in spotting the signs and symptoms of mental health problems. However, there is no plan in place for the existing workforce.

  1. Keep up to date with research on technology

There is significant discussion about the impact of technology, screen time and social media on the mental health of our young people. There is no clear simple answer however the evidence is clear that overuse is harmful. Just as overuse of most things are. This could be because of what is lost, such as time spent moving or with friends, as much as the because of the effect of the screen itself.

We have to be aware that technology firms do cost – they take our time and use this to extract data. It is in their interests to keep us looking at the screen. The government are researching this emerging and fast-moving area but have not come out with any clear recommendations yet.

It is a challenge for schools to keep on top of this, especially as the guidance is lacking. A way around this is to ask young people themselves. Having young people take some leadership of this agenda could be an effective way to address these challenges.

Schools should keep a look out for new research when it is published and aim to implement policies and guidance to reflect this.

  1. Sleep

We all know that unless students are getting good sleep they will be less awake in school. Low sleep effects our mood and long term can impact on mental health.

Some of this links to the discussion on screen time but is it more than that. The Department for Health are developing the policy but recognise that it is in its early stages.

Some schools have worked with parents and children to help them establish good bedtime routines and sleep hygiene. Supporting parents and children to look at sleep just as you do with other aspects of health: diet, body hygiene, physical activity etc. could help to ensure that this key part of self-care is given the value it merits.