Mental health and the education sector: what role can schools play in supporting students and families?
Hilary Wyatt, headmistress at Hyde Park School, discusses what educators can do to tackle one of the biggest health problems existing in society today.
After years of being excluded from mainstream discourse and dismissed as a recognised health condition, the taboo surrounding mental health is slowing but surely breaking down. And with an estimated one in 10 UK adults expected to suffer from some form of depression throughout their lives , it is no longer a problem that can be easily brushed under the carpet and ignored.
Sadly, the problem is not exclusive to adults either, and research from the Mental Health Foundation shows that 10 per cent of young people are also impacted by mental health problems.
So what can we, as educators, do to tackle one of the biggest health problems that exists in society today?
For me, the first step is recognising that we do have a role to play here: supporting our students – and their families – should be as much of a priority for teachers and schools, as providing a quality education.
It is no secret that children today are under a significant amount of pressure when it comes to their education. High competition and limited spaces at reputable schools means the need to hit top results and out-perform peers is ever-increasing. Dealing with that level of pressure isn’t always is easy – and not just for students but parents as well.
Recognising the signs that a student may be struggling is crucial in being able to tackle the situation – all the teachers and support teams here at Hyde Park School undergo regular training to help spot even the most subtle indicators. Whether it’s acting out in lessons, being distracted or disengaged – through to changes in personality like becoming particularly clingy or emotional. The key is to be perceptive and observant, and act immediately when any changes are displayed.
Communication is also key. This applies to both colleagues within your school, and the parents or guardian of the child. Stress, anxiety and other mental health issues can be triggered by a variety of factors so establishing the root of the problem is the first step towards breaking it down and providing the support that’s needed. Discussing the issues and causes is a helpful way to ensure that both the school and the family is aligned in their approach and also means that a robust plan of action can be put in place.
In addition, we as a school have implanted a series of new practices, clubs and activities that are all designed to support our students in dealing with stress and anxiety. For instance, at Hyde Park School we have regular “tea and toast” sessions in my office so students can talk openly about how they are feeling. This means that any worries, concerns, issues and problems can be tackled immediately – rather than leaving them to build up and intensify.
We also have a ‘worry box’, where students can write down any specific concerns they have that are then addressed individually, as a class, in assembly or shared with parents where appropriate. Why not suggest this at your child’s school if it’s not something they already offer?
It’s also important to remember that children live in the emotional atmosphere created by their parents or guardians. This means that a stressed family home often equals a stressed child. With that in mind we have also launched yoga lessons for both pupils, parents and staff so everyone can learn yoga practices and breathing techniques that will help with relaxation. In assembly once a week we have quiet reflection time for a few moments and calming classical music is played in the entrance hall in the morning for all to enjoy.
We also offer mindfulness sessions to teach a range of techniques for stress and anxiety management – these are great basic tips that can be transferred across a multitude of situations, as well as being something that parents and their children can practice together.
While there is no one-size-fits all approach to dealing with mental health issues it’s important to remember that there are ways to help spot and control the effects. In addition, there are a wealth of resources and support systems available, however big or small, that teachers and families can draw on. I would urge anyone who has concerns about a child to start discussing the problem immediately, so that the right steps can be taken to offer them support.