Shirebrook Academy in Derbyshire is a coeducation secondary school and was one of the first schools in the country to take part in the Youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) in Schools programme.
This government-funded programme was developed following Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement of her intention to train a member of staff every English state secondary school in MHFA skills. Starting in June 2017, MHFA England has been working alongside its instructor network to implement the programme, which will run over three years and train around 1,000 school staff per year. By 2020 over 3,000 staff will have received the training and be certified as Youth MHFA Champions.
Abi Grocutt, Safeguarding Officer at Shirebrook Academy, explains how they first became involved in the Youth MHFA in Schools programme: “As a school we’re always on the lookout for ways to improve our approach to student wellbeing. We know that mental ill health is a big issue for our pupils – this is borne out in the electronic recording system we use to log students’ concerns. These records tell us that mental health issues including self-harm and suicidal thought are some of the most common issues. Typically, concerns are logged and passed on to me as Safeguarding Officer, but with mental health issues on the rise among young people, I think it’s important that school staff are equipped to do more than just log concerns for referral. When the Youth MHFA in Schools programme launched, we immediately applied to act as a host school to find out more about the MFHA approach to supporting young people with mental health issues.”
Abi describes how she is herself no stranger to supporting young people in discussing mental ill health: “In my role I often deal with students presenting with suicidal thoughts and I know the questions to ask to assess risk. For many teachers, however, it’s a topic that is a source of great hesitation and concern, with many feeling untrained and unprepared to respond appropriately. I was interested to find out if my methods were in line with best practice advised by MHFA England, and to share any learnings with my colleagues.”
Following the course, and thanks to Abi’s championing of staff and student wellbeing, Shirebrook Academy have since launched a programme of continuous personal development (CPD) sessions on mental health for staff, as well as a mental health champions programme for students. Abi explains: “My colleague Angela and I felt the course gave us some real impetus to begin a new CPD session to share our learnings with staff. The first CPD session we hosted on mental health was really well received with staff telling us that it helped them to reflect on their own practice and to think about the questions to ask to provide initial support to pupils coming to them with mental health issues. We also wanted to get students more involved in leading our wellbeing approach so have since started a student mental health champions initiative, which has also been well received.”
Abi now plans to run further CPD sessions specific to eating disorders, self-harm and suicide and also to involve the school’s student champions in this to better facilitate dialogue and understanding between staff and pupils.
Talking about the impact of Youth MHFA training in her approach and the importance of awareness raising, Abi says: “Taking the course really gave me a confidence boost in knowing that I’m already doing a lot of the right things in my role as Safeguarding Officer. To be able to share information from a reputable, evidence-based source is something that will also benefit staff throughout Shirebrook”.
“Although we already have a strong focus on wellbeing in our school community, the training’s given us a renewed drive to raise awareness and break stigma, so more pupils feel able to come forward and talk to staff. We’ve also recently held assemblies presented by our staff and student mental health champions to ensure everyone knows who they are, as well as advertising these networks with posters and via our mental health noticeboard.”
“Although we already have a strong focus on wellbeing in our school community, the training’s given us a renewed drive to raise awareness and break stigma, so more pupils feel able to come forward and talk to staff."
Now at nearly six months following the training, Abi’s seeing the impact of her work as a Youth MHFA Champion in the wider school community. She explains, “The feedback in our electronic reporting system is a clear indicator that our CPD sessions and awareness raising activities following the training are benefitting staff and students. We’re seeing an increase in concerns logged, but crucially the notes alongside the concerns show that staff now know the questions to ask to sensitively explore the issues with pupils. Rather than defaulting straight to a referral to my department, staff are empowered to have that conversation themselves. I think this is invaluable to building better relationships between staff and distressed students, and helping that young person feel supported and listened to.”
Abi now intends to take the Youth MHFA Two Day course to become a fully qualified Youth Mental Health First Aider, with her local authority also planning to fund further training courses for schools in the area: “My vision is of a school community that has a student-led and informed approach to raising awareness and breaking stigma, and where there is a clear dialogue between staff and students at all levels. MHFA training is something that all staff and all schools would benefit from in achieving this, and I look forward to continuing my advocacy work in my school community and beyond to achieve this vision.”