The last few years have brought increased awareness of the importance of mental health and behaviour in schools, showing how children’s mental health significantly affects their academic performance and later, career success.

With studies showing an alarming increase in the number of children and teenagers who experience mental health issues, the pressure is mounting for schools and educational leaders to provide adequate support so students can overcome any issues and go on to live healthy, normal lives.

A huge part of mental health support in schools starts with awareness. Students need to be educated about mental health in order to be aware of the signs, so that they can know where to go for help and may also be able to help others.

Not only this – integrating mental health education into the curriculum will increase knowledge and understanding of those experiencing difficulties, removing any stigma or social misconceptions and replacing these with an atmosphere of positivity and acceptance. This in turn would greatly benefit the lives of students experiencing problems and potentially even reduce their symptoms.

Mental Health Statistics in Schools

  • According to the UK Mental Health Foundation, 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24.
  • The number of children seeking help from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in England has more than doubled between 2017-19.
  • According to the Centre for Mental Health, one young person in 10 will experience a mental health problem every year.
  • A 2017 NHS survey of five to 19-year-olds found that one in eight young people had an identified mental disorder, with 5% of those interviewed meeting the criteria for two or more disorders.
  • In the same survey, it was revealed that emotional disorders were the most common disorder among school-age children, with 8.1% suffering with anxiety, depression, mania or bipolar affective disorder.
    Meanwhile, 4.6% had some kind of behaviour disorder, whilst 1.6% had a hyperactivity disorder.
  • In a survey of members of the National Education Union in 2019, fewer than half said their school had a counsellor; three out of 10 (30%) had been able to access external specialist support; fewer than 30% had a school nurse and only 12% had a ‘mental health first aider’ as favoured by the government.

How does mental health affect students in schools?

A 2018 survey by the National Education Union (NEU) revealed that almost half (49%) of secondary school education staff reported students had been suicidal because of the stress they are under.

81% reported cases of self-harming as a way to deal with the pressures.

The survey asked 730 education staff – working in early years, primary, secondary, sixth-form colleges and FE colleges. The survey revealed that, overall:

  • more than half (56%) of pupils’ mental health issues are leading to self-harm;
  • 45% reported pupils having eating disorders;
  • 48% said pupils were having panic attacks.

When it came to identifying the underlying reasons, 82% of respondents said that tests and exams have the biggest impact on the mental health of pupils; 67% believed it is due to pressure from schools to do well; 50% said it was as a result of a narrowing of the curriculum; and 48% considered the pressure students put on themselves to do well academically a contributing factor.

Mental health disorders can affect classroom learning and social interactions, both of which are critical to the students’ success. However, if appropriate services are put in place to support young people’s mental health needs, we can often maximise success and minimise negative impacts for students.

Role of School in Promoting Mental Health

According to the Association for Children’s Mental Health (ACMH), addressing mental health needs in school is critically important because 1 in 5 children have a diagnosable emotional, behavioural or mental health disorder, while 1 in 10 young people have a mental health challenge that is severe enough to impair how they function at home, school or in the community.

Many estimates show that even though mental illness affects so many children and teens aged 5 to 19 years, as many as one in four of them do not receive the mental health care they need.

Being able to recognise and support kids mental health in schools matters because:

  • Mental health problems are common and often develop during childhood and adolescence.
  • They are treatable!
  • Early detection and intervention strategies work. They can help improve young people’s resilience and their ability to succeed in school & life.
Children in mental health assembly

The Discover Children’s Story Centre delivering an interactive story-telling session on mental health.

The school environment has a significant impact on a young person’s emotional welfare. For children’s well-being to thrive during school hours, teachers need the confidence and knowledge to nurture young people’s development. Equally, teachers need to be supported with their own mental health throughout their career.

By exploring the root causes that lead to distress – be it body image, relationships or exam stress – schools can help build resilience and prevent mental health problems from developing in the first place.

One major issue raised by the NEU 2018 survey findings is that it shows the additional lengths schools and colleges are having to go to in order to support vulnerable students – and that they are ill-equipped to do so.

When asked about barriers to supporting students with mental health conditions in their school or college funding was identified by 77% of respondents – followed by length of time to get specialist help (75%). Further, more than half (54%) said that funding to provide support for pupils’ mental health is inadequate.

Benefits of mental health education in schools

In an article written by Nancy Barile, M.A.Ed. on the importance of mental health awareness in schools, she relates how she noticed some drastic changes in one of her students over a short period of time.

The student no longer did her homework and began coming to school in the same clothes as before, although she’d previously been meticulous about her appearance. When Barile tried to speak to her, she was withdrawn and distant.

Luckily, Barile had some training in mental health issues and recognised that the student was in trouble. Social workers on the staff were able to speak to the student and found that she was depressed, suicidal and in need of immediate psychiatric intervention.

The student was admitted to hospital for a short while, given medication and therapy and eventually managed to graduate with her class. Had Barile not noticed the signs, this story could have had a very different outcome.

79% of British parents feel that mental health education should be a part of the curriculum in schools. Across the globe, parents understand the need for mental health education for children. With 50% of mental health conditions developing in children of age 14 or below, the support for the cause is growing rapidly.

As reported in US News and World Report, a few small studies have found “that teaching high school students about mental health improved their attitudes toward treatment, increased willingness to seek help from a counsellor and boosted their overall mental health literacy”.

Fonthill Primary children

Fonthill Primary School was awarded the Bristol Healthy Schools award for their work in learning about mental health and well-being.

Tackling Mental Health in Schools

Below are some ways in which teachers, assistants and schools can integrate mental health education into the curriculum and daily school life.

1. Understand mental health needs within the school

It’s good for teachers and leaders to already have a top-down view of any students that may be experiencing mental health difficulties within the school. Whilst most schools and teachers will have a good insight into the individual backgrounds and circumstances of their students, looking particularly at any mental health issues and ensuring there is adequate support for them is the first place to start.

Having said that, many mental health issues go undetected from either a misdiagnosis or simply hesitance for students to come forward with any issues they may be having. As a result, its possible schools may not hear about a mental health disorder or crisis till further down the line.

Therefore, it’s more important than ever that teachers and school leaders learn the signs to know when a student is in trouble so that they can intervene before things become too serious.

2. Consider having some mental health training

Though being a mental health expert is certainly not a prerequisite for teaching, the more teachers know about mental health in young people, the better.

As a teacher who knows and understands the basics of mental health, you’ll be better equipped to talk to students about how they may be feeling. You’ll also be able to use the right terminology and will know the different signs to watch out for.

You could request some basic mental health training for teachers through your school, or do a short qualification course online. There are also lots of information and resources online that you can study, without gaining a formal qualification.

3. Educate parents and students on signs and symptoms

It’s important that all members of the school community know the signs and symptoms to look out for, so they can help those who may be struggling.

For students, this could mean having posters around the school that serve as mental health check-in ‘reminders’, or teaching a lesson on mental health (more about this below).

For parents, you may wish to hold a mental health evening where they can attend, ask questions, and become aware of how mental health is being supported within the school.

The more everybody knows what to watch out for, the less chance that anybody will have to suffer in silence.

4. Have a place students can go to talk and a strong open-door policy

Having a strong open-door policy means that students feel comfortable and safe about going to any member of staff about a problem. Even if teachers are not especially mental health-trained, having an open willingness to listen and making sure students know about this will go a long way.

However, every school should also have a designated ‘safe space’ where students know they can go to talk. Ideally this will involve at least one trained professional, but it could also have voluntary student counsellors on hand to help.

Teachers should also be aware of when it’s time to escalate a situation by referring a student to the school’s help centre, or even to a local mental health team. Most of the time this may seem like common sense, but it’s also something that can be better learned through basic mental health training, as mentioned earlier.


5. Create a safe, positive school environment

Part of reinforcing an open-door policy is to create a safe, positive overall school environment. This applies not just to students feeling supported with mental health issues, but to their overall learning and well-being as well.

Most schools will likely have procedures already in place to achieve this, but think about it from a mental health perspective. Is there anything that can be done to improve the learning environment and ensure it is an atmosphere of safety. comfort and community?

All too often, this starts with how students speak to and treat one another, and the disciplinary structures in place for when students go against the code of communication.

Recognise when students make positive decisions, such as helping out a classmate, showing compassion or studying hard for a test. By rewarding acts of kindness and understanding, teachers can help create an atmosphere of positivity and support.

6. Encourage good physical health.

Teach students about the importance of physical health, and how physical and mental health go hand in hand. Most schools will likely integrate physical health education into the curriculum already, but dedicated lessons or workshops on healthy eating, physical exercise and managing stress will all help to strengthen a positive body-mind relationship in your students.

Remember to always explain the mental benefits of exercise and healthy eating too.


7. Encourage social time

Social time is incredibly important for students to function properly; to focus on something other than school work and exams, and to bond and make friends.

Each week, try scheduling in 30 minutes or so where students can be social and focus on something other than the curriculum. This can be in addition to regular break times, and could be encouraging them to chat with their peers about an everyday topic, current events, or complete a task together, like a difficult problem or a challenge.


8. Run lunchtime clubs for activities

Lunchtime (and after-school) clubs are incredibly important as they can help provide a sense of community and belonging to students who may otherwise struggle elsewhere.

These clubs could be for any activity – arts and crafts, baking, drama clubs, book clubs, film clubs, sports, dance, or even discussion/debate clubs. The main thing is that students are made to feel included and can do something they enjoy with like-minded people.

9. Make mental health part of the curriculum

Mental health is still seen as a bit of a taboo subject and many people feel embarrassed to talk about it – particularly at school. To overcome this, its essential that mental health is made a priority in your school and integrated into the curriculum wherever possible.

You could introduce the topic of mental health through teaching a lesson or workshop on it, or even during school assemblies. Discuss it elsewhere too, like in PHSCE lessons, Health & Social Care and even when studying literacy characters in English class. Celebrate awareness days, such as World Mental Health Day, to let students know they’re not alone.

You could also invite charities like Mind and Rethink into school, to give talks about their work and address various mental health topics. Invite both students and parents to attend.


10. Organise a Wellness Week

Put mental health and well-being at the heart of your school by hosting a Wellness Week that focuses on a range of well-being topics. This will benefit students and staff alike and if possible, you could even invite parents along to some events too.

Here are some ideas you could include in your wellness week:

  • Arrange activities that will get students talking and working together with people they may not normally talk to.
  • Host a sports or activities day with different types of exercise or arts classes. You could invite skilled tutors from various places to come in and give taster sessions, from Tai Chi and Yoga to kick-boxing and martial arts to even flower arranging and pottery classes – anything that relaxes the mind and boosts endorphins.
  • Organise charity events such as a bake sale or fancy dress day, with the proceeds going to mental health charities.
  • Host mindfulness sessions that focus on meditation, stress-busting techniques and creating a calming environment.
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