Fixing The Cracks

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How can we help improve our mental health?

A few blogs ago I discussed supporting learners with an identified SEN of SEMH (Social, Emotional and Mental Health) but mental health is an issue affecting a wider group than that. So, what are the issues and what can schools do?

The Mental Health Foundation highlights that 1 in 10 children and young people will be affected by a mental health need during their school career and that early intervention is crucial. That’s 3 in the average class.

Some issues arise from sudden events: bereavement, divorce or unplanned pregnancy. In my experience, schools find these easier to deal with because they often have more obvious avenues of support or because they are able to draw upon their life experiences in how they manage those situations; death, break-ups and pregnancy are situations that so many of us have experienced and because we know what the trigger was, early intervention is easier.

However, some issues are more gradual and creep up without a clear trigger. Over many months and years a young person can be experiencing long term mental health needs, like depression and anorexia, often hiding them from families and friends; how can schools help something like that?

The best way I have seen is through awareness: you can reach those who are too afraid to seek help, developing the skills and empathy of those who maybe in the front line to support them and support professionals in recognising the signs and having the confidence to act.

One charity that promotes such support through training and resources aimed both at young people and educators, is the Charlier Waller Memorial Trust (CWMT) who seek to raise awareness of mental health needs. Their Mental Health Conferences are excellent and, at a recent one I attended, I was amazed by the frankness of Dr Pooky Knightsmith in discussion her own life with anorexia. If you have Twitter, follow her. You won’t be disappointed.

In fact, the CWMT hold weekly webinars run by Pooky. These are 30-minute sessions that run every Tuesday at 6pm during term time – for staff working with children and young people. Register for the webinars here and for previous webinars then click the following link. Take a look at the following webinar about a whole culture approach to emotional wellbeing and this is particularly aimed at the senior management team.

Wishing Well

Yet, her openness to discuss issues she is facing made me really think about the role of teachers in supporting mental health.

Are we able to support those with complex mental health needs if we are not mentally well ourselves? An image from the conference was this: if we are stuck in the well, how can we possibly pull someone else out?

Mental health amongst school staff is not dissimilar to that experienced by pupils. We feel more equipped to cope with supporting staff through death and divorce because they are common experiences. Yet where we struggle is when those issues become longer and deeper, or when colleagues are facing hidden issues that suddenly over spill into their work life.

Teaching is one of the hardest jobs to do when you are experiencing mental health needs. Teaching is about acting, putting on a show, spinning plates, keeping up, constantly coping with change. When you face something that means that your ability to do this is hindered, cracks begin to show.

I don’t think that schools are as equipped as they should be to support staff who are struggling especially if their mental health needs are due to issues at work. You may have a policy, or a designated member of staff to talk to, but that is little support if you feel guilty for being off work or uncertain how your performance will be judged on your return. Education can be an unforgiving place.

Be Aware

So, what can schools do? It is the same approach for staff as it is for pupils: awareness.

Mental health concerns must stop being a dirty word and become part of our daily practice. Rather than solely focusing our attention on the early warning signs in pupils, we need to do that for colleagues too.

It means having support embedded in the ethos of the school and for us to be bold and brave in offering it. Take a look at the 8 core strands in the webinar by Dr Pooky Knightsmith and make sure that senior management watch it!

It needs schools to be empathetic, to understand why performance might have suffered or why teaching 8P on a Thursday afternoon is a step too far.

Schools need to be reflexive in their approaches to supporting staff and realise that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Listen

I am sure that some people reading this will be offended (‘That’s not how I feel at all!’) or dismissive (‘Come on, there is simply enough to do already’). I am not intending to speak for everyone who has suffered mental health needs but I can speak for myself.

The best support I ever had was simply having someone to listen to me. Even if you think I am too utopian and unrealistic in my views, we can at least agree on one thing: listening. For that is a skill that we can all develop, use regardless of our role and at no cost to the budget, because it is free.

Helen Woodley

Helen Woodley is a primary trained SENDCo currently working in a large KS1-4 Pupil Referral Unit in the North East of England. She spent 3 years studying Theology in Durham; Helen has worked in a wide variety of special school settings, including all age schools. She has a wealth of knowledge about SEN systems and the importance of every teacher being equipped to support the variety of SEN needs within their classroom. Helen has recently completed her thesis and completed her Ed.D at Newcastle University. Outside of teaching, she collects animals and has dreams of running a rescue centre!