Mental Health First Aid England National Trainer and Director of The Alliance for Learning Teaching School, Lisa Fathers, shares her thoughts on this year's Mental Health Awareness Week theme of kindness in these trying times.

As a Mental Health First Aid England National Trainer, Education Leader and Mum, I’m doing my best to cope with the unprecedented levels of uncertainty, fear, stress and anxiety that Coronavirus is causing for colleagues, children and the families we work with.

As a teaching school that has trained over 5,000 Mental Health First Aiders, we have been working hard to support those in our network. Understanding, empathy and compassion has shone through in recent weeks and we know that we are all stronger together. Collaboration and kindness matter more than ever.

Very quickly, we had to adapt the way we work, bringing our community together virtually to share resources. We have arranged free online mental health training sessions this month for teachers and school staff and we are keen to help colleagues manage their own mental health while considering strategies to support students with the disruption they face at this crucial time. Many are experiencing the biggest change in their routine they will ever face and countless are dealing with feelings of loss, whether that’s grieving a loved one, or facing the reality of a loss of structure and security, friendships, opportunity or freedom.

The sessions we’ve organised introduce attendees to common mental health issues, while discussing strategies to promote positive wellbeing in a supportive online environment with our MHFA England Instructor Members. In June we will be holding a refresher session for those who have already trained with us to access the latest remote support, revisit how to practice self-care and start to imagine what the recovery phase back to school might look like, in addition to how trained colleagues can help. We know that many are using their skills to check in on family and friends.

As bereavement will be one of the key influences on mental health as a result of COVID-19, The Alliance for Learning has also formed a new partnership with Winston’s Wish, the childhood bereavement charity, to offer free expertise for schools to gain a better understanding of how to handle the trauma of when a close family member or friend passes away.

We have seen schools in our Trust and our extended network acting as the backbone for their communities – their compassion is a survival line for those in need. Many have delivered food parcels to students and their families, while others have created face mask production lines.

Students at Stanley Grove Primary Academy in Longsight have been making cards and sending letters of support to residents of a Stockport care home to raise sprits. They’ve also created virtual hugs for vulnerable adults with Making Space, a health and social care charity and wellbeing ambassadors at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls have made their own student wellbeing newsletter to stay connected with one another and offer peer-to-peer support. Focusing on wellbeing has been a key objective and we also arranged a question and answer session for PE students with gymnast Craig Heap, offering them tips on how to stay healthy.

As we turn to thoughts of how we can begin to recover from the effects of this pandemic, from an education perspective, compassionate leadership will be essential to ensure our young people and colleagues have the space to rebuild relationships, heal the sense of loss and explore a programme of personalised and holistic recovery. There will be more opportunities for partnership working to continue the foundations we have already laid, sharing resources.

Recovery will be gradual, and we must not underestimate the influence Coronavirus has had on our immaterial world – the isolation, anguish caused by the sudden loss of loved ones, and separation from our ‘normal’ life.

We need to work together with our communities, listening to individual and collective needs and to understand that each community will have different requirements. As the real impact of the pandemic is not yet clear, we’ll need to be flexible in how we respond to challenges and we’ll need to look out for one another even more so than we have done in the past. Many of our colleagues have been doing beyond their best to care for others, but we are human and prolonged periods of stress impacts our relationships, creative thinking and decision-making skills. We need to plan for fatigue and ensure individuals and our society have time to repair.

Mental Health First Aiders are just one part of what needs to be a “whole organisation” approach to mental health and wellbeing and that’s why our role will be even more crucial as time moves on, helping to spread and maintain a culture of understanding and kindness.