A Guardian article of the 10 January 2015 highlighted the results of a survey which reported that heads at more than half of the schools in England believe that the referral system for sending a pupil to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) is failing. Certainly, CAMHS has been described as the “Cinderella service” of the NHS and is struggling to keep up with demand. The government now estimates that 9.8 percent of children suffer from diagnosable mental health disorders and 17 percent of girls will have self-harmed by the time they finish school.
The situation appears desperate and it is, perhaps, unsurprising that schools are seen as the potential root of future change. As Professor Dame Sue Bailey, chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, states: “School is a critical environment … [There is a need] to provide young people with the help, support and self-empowerment to develop and maintain resilience to stay mentally healthy.”
No one is going to argue with this sentiment, but how can schools encourage students to develop the resilience to “stay mentally healthy” if there is a lack of professional expertise in school? The document published by the government on 16 June 2014 – ‘Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools’ – is worth a close read, as is noting some national initiatives, such as February’s ‘self-help, not self-harm’ month run by the CAMHS of Worcestershire Health and Care Trust. However, I also think it is vital to take a pro-active approach to mental health issues and really listen to the students in your school; doing so has had a huge impact on how I, as a pastoral deputy, manage our approach to such issues.
It is imperative that the policies and procedures are in place which establish the ethos of the school as one which encourages positive behaviour. Students must come to school in the knowledge that bullying, if it does take place, will be countered swiftly and in an atmosphere of zero tolerance. Reports of such behaviour can also take place anonymously through the ‘listening ear’ box and support is offered, not just at the time when a child reports problems, but for a good time afterwards. Students feeling supported facilitates their sense of belonging which is crucial to a positive and cohesive atmosphere.
Ideally, a school will also have access to an employed mental health professional when one is needed. Nevertheless, all staff must have access to the guidance they may need to support students who approach them. The e-learning and freely accessible resources at www.minded.org.uk are fantastic for ensuring that all staff are aware of how to tackle potential causes for concern.
Effective means of communication with both students and parents are also important. Families need to be empowered with the knowledge they may need and in an atmosphere where any stigma associated with mental health issues is banished. Through our ‘wellbeing’ curriculum programme, we teach about mental health issues and various coping strategies; sessions on yoga and mindfulness have had significant impact. It was also a conversation with a girl who had experienced issues surrounding self-esteem which resulted in our ‘thought for the week’, a motivating message for students to see as they walk from lesson to lesson, from messages that mark anti-bullying week to those that encourage resilience. Indeed, resilience is key: every student must be helped to develop her self-esteem and confidence as well as the belief that she can deal with change.
There are always going to be students who need external help and support and often because they are faced with situations which cannot be managed solely in school. However, no matter how daunting the task may seem, we have a duty not only to enable our students to succeed academically, but also for them to achieve their emotional and personal potential.
Helen Jeys is deputy head at Manchester High School for Girls