“Teachers are not mental health professionals” is a phrase I have heard often, both in and out of school. Most recently I heard Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education say this on Wednesday in the Houses of Parliament during a discussion on mental health in schools. A group of young people, including myself, were invited to speak to Nicky Morgan and Sam Gyimah to see what schools are already doing what more we think should be happening.
The truth is that no, teachers are not mental health professionals. But that does not mean that they cannot have an awareness of mental health problems, either in a personal or professional capacity. Given that the statistics are that 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, the remaining 3 in 4 will come into contact with someone who is struggling. For those who work in schools, the person they come into contact with may well be a student. A majority of 5-16 year olds are in schools from 9-3:30, Monday-Friday. Spending so much time at school means that staff are in a prime position to notice changes in a young person and intervene. This does not have to fall on the shoulders of one lone teacher, it’s a team effort. Noticing subtle changes in behavior, attendance, concentration and willingness to engage can make huge differences and will most likely be picked up across the board. My mum is a HLTA and came home the other day having received a refresher safeguarding training. She’s never had any training on spotting mental health problems or promoting wellbeing/good mental health. In fact, it is not anywhere in teacher training.
How a child or young person presents with a mental health problem also varies from person to person. A young person ‘acting up’ is not always as simple as that. From the ages of 13-15 I would truant pretty much every day and get sent out of all of my lessons for being disruptive. I spent the majority of my time on report and with my head on the desk. I refused to do PE as I didn’t want people to see that I was self-harming. But I wasn’t a bad kid, I was just struggling with my mental health and not sure what to do about it, yet I knew people who were struggling with similar issues and they isolated themselves instead. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to trying to spot people who need help, and it requires a great deal of looking beyond the surface.
Everyone is talking about early intervention. Schools are a perfect place for us to help young people. With training staff can feel confident when talking about mental health to students and be able to spot warning signs. I’m in no means saying that we’re expecting teachers to become psychiatrists, the opposite in fact. School staff are school staff. They are not clinical. A teacher does not have the same negative connotations attached to the name as a mental health professional may. They are pretty consistent and there most days. This offers young people a different environment to talk about things that are concerning them, which may feel easier than seeking help from mental health services.
A basic requirement should be for all staff to at the very least know how to signpost to services and make referrals. That way if someone feels unable to help, the young person is able to receive help from an external source. Some young people may not want to talk to a teacher. For some school itself may be the problem! There needs to be a joined up approach between services, schools working alongside CAMHS/social services/YOTs etc in order to best support a young person. It’s by no means rocket science, nor is it impossible. But an attitude shift is required, from “mental health isn’t my problem” to ” mental health is everyone’s problem”. We preach about the importance of looking after your physical health, eating your 5 day, exercising and cutting out rubbish from our diets. But where is the emphasis on keeping mentally well? Where is the impact that lack of sleep can have on your mental health taught? I often go into schools and talk about wellbeing/mental health, and a recurring theme is that initially most young people do not even realize that we all have mental health. For as long as I can remember I have had an awareness of my physical health and have been able to tell if I was unwell or not. So why is it not the same for our emotional health?
We don’t need a massive overhaul in the education system, we just need small yet effective conversations to take place, and the training to make sure that all school staff feel confident in recognizing young people who need help. A lot of the emphasis in schools is towards passing exams, anxiety provoking for most in itself, but for those with underlying mental health problems it can be overwhelming. In order to succeed you need to be relatively healthy in all aspects of life and that’s why it’s so important for schools to play an active role in promoting good mental health and supporting students who are finding things difficult.