Barnardo’s Chief Executive, Javed Khan, and Caroline Hounsell, Youth Lead and Director at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, share their thoughts on transforming how we approach mental health in schools.

Last month, World Mental Health Day placed a spotlight on youth mental health in our rapidly changing world. From exam stresses to social media, the pressures young people are navigating are unlike any faced by past generations.

We know that 50% of mental health issues are established by age 14 and with the Children’s Commissioner for England reporting in 2017 that over 800,000 children experience mental health issues, the scale of the problem is clear. We’ve long been at a point where fewer words and more actions are needed to address the ever-deepening crisis in children’s mental health.

One part of the solution is ensuring that we create mentally healthy environments for young people from the outset. And it's here that a ‘whole school’ approach can help. This means school staff, parents, governors and young people working collaboratively to prioritise wellbeing in every area of school life. It involves giving everyone a voice and looking at the school culture, its curriculum, staff policies, links to local services and training needs – all in the interest of creating a supportive community where everyone can thrive.

If a student, or a member of staff, is struggling with their mental health, evidence shows that timely support is essential too. Intervening early if someone is showing signs or symptoms of mental ill health can be so important in helping them get on a path to recovery or to manage symptoms.

MHFA England’s Youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training is one tool being used by thousands of schools as part of their ‘whole school’ approach to mental health. This evidence-based course gives staff skills and confidence to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues, start a conversation, and effectively guide a young person towards the right support. Impact research published this month by University College London has also shown that Youth MHFA training leads to a threefold increase in confidence in knowledge, skills, and awareness to support a young person struggling with their mental health.

It’s crucial this training is rolled out to all schools because teachers have a vital role to play in helping children who may be experiencing mental ill health. Picking up on issues as early as possible and guiding a young person towards support quickly can also mean that a mental health issue has a less profound impact on their social, emotional and academic development.

Ensuring there is a ‘whole school’ approach to mental health helps with this because it removes the stigma around mental health and encourages children to talk about their feelings. Barnardo’s runs school programmes including PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) for primary school pupils to further support this. In these sessions children are taught how to recognise their emotions and handle them better, look after children who look sad or lonely in the playground and feel more positive about themselves.

To further empower teachers and other school staff, Barnardo’s is calling for everyone who works with young people to have training about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and understand how they can affect a child’s life. ACEs include physical, emotional or sexual abuse, growing up in a household where there is substance abuse, being exposed to domestic violence or having a parent in prison – and they are a key risk factor in poor mental health and wellbeing.

Being exposed to four or more ACEs, or trauma, is regarded as a tipping point for significant impact on a child’s mental health. But if early intervention and support are given, then poor outcomes are not inevitable. Barnardo’s is currently training its employees on ACEs and believes ensuring teachers receive this training should be part of the Government’s long term mental health and wellbeing strategy.

Both Barnardo’s and MHFA England see a future where training in ACEs and Youth MHFA is accessible to school staff all over the country. We believe this can be achieved in part by building this into initial teacher training and making it available to other school staff at the point of training. This would also support the proposals in the Government’s recent Green Paper on Children and Young People’s Mental Health, which broadly emphasise the importance of mental health training in schools and the ‘whole school’ approach to mental health. 

We also recognise the importance of laying the foundations for skilling up staff in these areas. Resources like the #HandsUp4HealthyMinds toolkit, launched to mark World Mental Health Day, provides reliable information about young people’s mental health.

#HandsUp4HealthyMinds includes tips on how to start a conversation about mental health, information to help signpost a young person to the appropriate support, and even a ready-to-use presentation to help staff advocate for youth mental health in schools.

Prioritising future generations’ wellbeing is central to creating a mentally healthier world where young people grow up healthy, happy and resilient. Giving those on the frontline the skills and the knowledge to support this is paramount and, through our work, Barnardo’s and MHFA England hope to continue to help schools build healthy and inclusive communities where support is never more than one conversation away.

Download the #HandsUp4HealthyMinds toolkit at: