The latest NHS figures suggest that in a class of 30, between five and eight learners may be struggling with their mental health and a teacher is often the first person they confide in.
Schools are responding to this growing need by providing mental health and wellbeing support services and one in four (25.1%) 11- to 16-year-olds accessed this type of support at school in the past year. Increasing numbers of schools are placing wellbeing at the centre of their values so it becomes an integral part of their learning community’s culture and many are creating bespoke wellbeing hubs where students can seek support.
Why wellbeing matters
Unhappy or unwell students can’t learn effectively, so finding ways to improve their wellbeing is more than just ‘the right thing to do’, it’s essential for their attainment and future outcomes. Even Ofsted has acknowledged the potentially negative effect on wellbeing of the relentless focus on exam grades as a measure of success and is moving towards prioritising a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’, changing the measures against which schools will be judged.
With teachers already stretched to the limit, it’s unrealistic to charge them with responsibility for the mental wellbeing of their students as well, so what can schools do to cope with the ever-increasing rates of mental ill-health? And do they need to create specific spaces for mental wellbeing?
We spoke to experienced school counsellors to find out how schools can support student wellbeing and discovered that, while a dedicated support space is optimal, it’s leadership and culture that matter most of all.
“Having a dedicated student support space separate from the hurly burly of the main school is optimal. It sends a clear signal to students that their wellbeing is important, they know exactly where to go for support.”
Why students may need help
“Young people seek support, which may include counselling, to help deal with a whole range of problems. There’s usually a lot going on in their lives, they may be experiencing family issues or be in the middle of a court case, others don’t get to eat at weekends, some may have fallen out with their friends or may have problems related to social media, cyber bullying or anxiety. In many cases a human interaction is what’s required, someone to ask “Are you ok?” and to notice something’s wrong. But it would be impossible for teachers, with 30 children in a class, whose job is demanding enough as it is, to pay attention to the inner lives of all their pupils, so there needs to be somewhere students can go for help.”
An NHS survey states that 12.8% of children aged five to 19 had a mental health disorder in 2017. Emotional disorders, including anxiety and depression, have become more common, rising from 4.3% of five to 15-year-olds in 1999 to 5.8% in 2017.
In a class of 30 children that means nearly four of them may be struggling.
Creating space for support
“Having a dedicated student support space separate from the hurly burly of the main school is optimal. It sends a clear signal to students that their wellbeing is important, they know exactly where to go for support and having a calm, attractive space that people enjoy being in could help overcome any reluctance to seek help. For many schools this standalone space isn’t an option but there are other ways to approach it.”
“It can be helpful for students to have a safe space, that is monitored, where they can go for any reason, that gives them an accessible entry point to more formal support. If a student turns up at the support space it allows them to signal that they need help without necessarily having to immediately articulate what it is they are struggling with.”
“They might visit the support space if they have fallen out with a friend, have a minor illness or want to seek help with a more serious issue, but having somewhere that’s accessible without having to jump through any hoops is really important. It takes courage to ask for help and it can be hard for young people to explain what’s wrong. Being able to just drop in for an informal chat could be the first, important step in seeking support. You might just be in that space because you’ve got a headache, so there’s no stigma associated with being there. Staff in the support space can then have a conversation that starts to identify what kind of help is needed.”
“Privacy is essential and non-negotiable for counselling sessions: they must take place in a space that is visually and acoustically private where they will not be disturbed at any time during the session. Comfort is important and the nicer the space the better, as it may help students relax, but it’s the quality of the relationship between client and counsellor that really matters. Often these spaces have to perform several functions, they are rarely solely for counselling, so just bearing in mind the need for comfort and privacy may be sufficient. Students may feel distressed after a counselling session, especially if they have been talking about difficult issues, so having somewhere they can sit for ten minutes to gather their thoughts is also helpful.”
Teachers need support too
“With immense pressure on results and resources coupled with large class sizes, teachers have a tough job to do, yet few schools provide access to counselling for teachers. If teachers are in the front line when it comes to their students’ wellbeing, they need to feel supported too, part of a culture that also values their wellbeing. It’s something to consider as part of the broader cultural implications of becoming a school that prioritises the wellbeing of its community as a whole.”
Leadership and culture are crucial
“You might think that being able to provide robust support comes down to money. While money definitely helps, in the schools that do this really well, it comes down to leadership and establishing a culture where mental health and wellbeing are clear priorities. Having a well-considered support offer that students and parents know about, and know how to access, along with a well-defined agreement about boundaries – for example, can students access counselling without their parents knowing? – is a good place to start. It’s important to build support throughout the SLT, and governors should also be included in these discussions.”
“Other aspects to consider include how to manage access to avoid the school counsellor being overwhelmed – what are the criteria for support and how is that managed? How will you address wellbeing in a broader sense? How can you ensure your students know they are valued? Are teachers confident that you have their back in terms of mental health – if they take the time to notice, how will that be followed up to ensure that student gets the help they need?”
When support at school isn’t enough
“For some students receiving support at school is the right solution, but schools can’t afford to become a clinic. When students need help from agencies outside the school, such as family intervention or treatment for mental health conditions, it’s vital that you know where to refer them on to. Any wellbeing offer within a school must include an assessment of needs and a clear pathway.”
The evolution of safeguarding
“Over recent years schools have raised their game where safeguarding is concerned, with well-defined roles, responsibilities and processes. No-one would turn a blind eye to bruises or hunger, we would respond using these well-established systems. If mental health is to achieve parity with physical health then the systems that support safeguarding may evolve to encompass mental health and wellbeing too, and schools have a crucial role to play.”
“It’s a lot to ask of schools when they are already under such pressure for results on scarce resources. In time it is hoped that much-needed additional funding will make it easier for schools to fulfil this role as the front-line resource for children’s mental health, but in the meantime developing a strong culture of support is a good place to start.”