Lisa Fathers, Head of Teaching School/BFET Co-Principal based at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls, blogs for us on the positive impact of Mental Health First Aid training in schools in Warrington. Lisa is a Youth & Adult MHFA Instructor and delivers training on leadership and resilience too. Lisa also represents secondary school leaders on the GM Strategic Health & Wellbeing Board.

Earlier this year Warrington Future in Mind teamed up with the Alliance for Learning (Altrincham Grammar School for Girls- BFET ) and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England to provide a programme of training designed to support local secondary schools in developing and enhancing ‘whole school’ approaches to wellbeing. This included a range of wellbeing workshops, courses on mindfulness, yoga and MHFA training.

The programme aimed to train school staff to understand mental health issues and develop knowledge and understanding of how to provide appropriate support to students. It also looked to help staff develop ways of reducing stigma around mental ill health and encourage their capacity for leadership around wellbeing in their school communities.

As part of this, I delivered Youth MHFA courses to around 40 staff, qualifying them all as Youth Mental Health First Aiders. The Youth MHFA training teaches school staff to spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill health in young people, gives them the confidence to provide support on a first aid basis and guide that young person to further support, be that self-help strategies, internal counselling services, or professional help. 

Following the programme a full evaluation, both qualitative and quantitative, was conducted to assess its impact. As is consistently found with MHFA training, in rating their knowledge, understanding and confidence of how best to support a young person with a mental health issue, 93% of participants rated this at 9/10 post-, compared to only 5/10 pre-programme.

The feedback from schools also revealed an increased awareness of mental health issues and a clearer understanding of where to go for support and where to signpost students. Many schools reported feeling relieved and reassured that they were doing the right things to support students with mental health issues and it was really encouraging to see that participants said mental health was less taboo and that conversations around mental health were more of an everyday occurrence for both students and staff. Together, this indicates to me the real culture change that this programme has instigated in these schools and the important role MHFA has in ensuring school staff are aware of, and better able to, navigate pathways.

As part of this evaluation schools were also given the opportunity to share stories of the very real impact MHFA training had on staff and students. The story of one Year 11 student experiencing depression really resonated with me, and brought home the importance of the work I do sharing MHFA skills. Upon visiting her doctor, the student was advised to visit the school’s pastoral lead for support in looking at the root causes of her low mood.

As a result of their training, the pastoral lead was able to use the MHFA action plan to guide their conversation to assess risk of suicide, self-harm and to unpick the issues causing the student to feel depressed. Thanks to this they were able to identify that the main issue for the student was the pressure she was feeling about revision and having no time for herself. The pastoral lead could confidently reassure the student that this was common amongst young people and that it wasn’t a weakness and that it was ok to feel ‘not ok’ sometimes. They were also able to give her lots of information about other agencies that could help her and discussed ways in which she could help herself and regain control of situations that made her feel like this, such as getting active, mindfulness, eating healthily, getting enough sleep and talking to someone she trusts and feels comfortable with.

This story is surely one of many that often go untold, but indicates the crucial role MHFA training can have in supporting safeguarding and upskilling staff to be able to have important conversations around mental ill health.

Overall, the programme has ensured that all local schools involved have adopted some form of mental health policy and has supported collaboration by creating a local network of Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAiders). As part of the Alliance for Learning’s work, MHFA England has also been working further in the community and has trained over 400 Mental Health First Aiders in primary, secondary and special schools in the area.

In future the Alliance for Learning intends to ensure that every school in its network is able to receive both Adult and Youth MHFA training to ensure a holistic approach to mental health for staff, students and their families. My trust is Bright Futures Educational Trust and in our 8 schools we have at least two MHF Aiders in each school and it works really well.

In my capacity as an instructor with MHFA England, I look forward to supporting them in this to ensure the mental health of both staff and students continues to have the support it needs in terms of quality training.