In January, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans to train staff in every state secondary school in England in mental health first aid. Since then, my organisation, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, has been working hard to coordinate Youth MHFA courses to take place this year to upskill around 1,000 school staff. This month we’ve officially launched the Youth MHFA in Schools programme, a Department of Health-funded initiative, which will run over three years and train over 3,000 school staff.

MHFA England is an independent community interest company (CIC) dedicated to increasing mental health literacy and training people to be able to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental ill health and to provide support on a first aid basis. Just as physical first aiders are not nurses or doctors, school staff trained in Mental Health First Aid skills will not be counsellors or therapists, but will take on the role of a first responder to assist pupils in emotional distress.

The Youth MHFA in Schools programme also seeks, in part, to address a training gap. A recent survey by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) found that although nearly all teachers come into contact with pupils experiencing mental health issues, less than half report having had training in managing children’s mental health. In this sense, it is hoped that providing school staff with these skills will reduce pressures associated with managing these situations without adequate training.

We recognise that Mental Health First Aid is only one part of the solution to improving approaches to young people’s mental health and that there is more work to be done when it comes to wider mental health services including Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). The Youth MHFA in Schools programme is, however, a great first step in supporting both school staff and young people in that it gives staff the skills, knowledge and confidence to identify issues, start conversations around mental health and guide young people to a place of further support.

In addition to this important government funded programme, we believe that this training should also be incorporated into all initial teacher training so that it doesn’t have to be retrofitted into the busy teaching timetable and that non-teaching staff are given the opportunity to attend training within the school term. Like physical first aid we would also recommend refresher training takes place every three years.

The challenges we face in the area of young people’s mental health require a considered, well informed and collaborative response to be dealt with effectively and we now look forward to contributing to the upcoming Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health and adding our voice to those campaigning for further improvements.

Caroline Hounsell is Director of Partnerships, Product Development and Training at MHFA England and is the lead for the Youth MFHA in Schools programme