Schools as therapeutic places

Dr Margot Sunderland, director of education and training at The Centre for Child Mental Health (CCMH), discusses the need for a new approach to support young people’s mental health in school

Many teachers worry that by talking to young people about their mental health they could make it worse. Yet, thousands of children with mental health problems are desperate to talk to someone and practising mindfulness or placing them on an endlessly long Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS) waiting list will simply not provide the necessary care they need.

If we allow this to continue we will be failing our young people by missing a major opportunity to prevent long-term mental and physical health problems.

What we need is a paradigm shift in our education system, a holistic view of the whole pupil rather than a divided one where teachers deal with either academic learning or pastoral care. There is no divide between the thinking brain and the emotional brain, if a young person has experienced trauma, they cannot learn.

Schools need to be therapeutic places providing support during the over 2,600 days that an average child spends inside their walls. This does not mean that every teacher needs to be a trained counsellor, it means that schools need to train up those members of staff who are natural emotional nurses.

Schools need to be therapeutic places providing support during the over 2,600 days that an average child spends inside their walls

Research shows that just one empathic teacher who checks in regularly with the pupil in emotional pain can interrupt the trajectory from unprocessed painful life experience to long-term mental illness.

Research also shows that appropriately trained teachers and teaching assistants can achieve results comparable to those achieved by trained therapists in addressing mild to moderate mental health problems such as anxiety, conduct disorder, substance use and post-traumatic stress.

Unfortunately, CAMHS is no longer fit for purpose; it’s a ‘falling down house’ with anywhere up to 1,000 days waiting list and young people with suicidal ideation still unable to meet the threshold for successful referral.

Incredibly, only 6.7% of mental health spending is allocated to CAMHS. If more funding was available for intervention, and some of that went to schools, there would be less demand for mental health services in adulthood.

By their vocation, teachers want to change their pupils’ lives. Children spend so much of their young life in schools, let’s make them places of academic growth and emotional support. Let’s begin to actively listen and hear their stories.


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