By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


Running from 10-16 May this year, Mental Health Awareness Week marks its 21st anniversary. It’s emblematic of how young people’s mental health seems to be discussed more openly now than ever before. You can find nuanced portrayals of mental health issues in both children’s TV shows and mainstream TV – something found less often in pop culture in the 20th century – and there is a wealth of published children’s material that acknowledges or explores mental health.

On the flipside, today’s children are growing up in a different world to any generation before them. They won’t remember a time before social media existed, and it is no secret that its use can have a negative impact on mental health. This is especially true in teenagers, as adolescence is often already an emotionally difficult time.

Research shows that half of all mental health problems develop by the age of 14, and that roughly three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental disorder. A recent study found that almost one in four children under 17 say they have self-harmed in that last year, and statistics surrounding self-harm shoot up when the young people are LGBTQ.

So where does this leave you, as teachers, educators and caregivers?

Mental health may be something of an elephant in the classroom environment – one which is begging to be acknowledged. Allowing schools to be places where mental health can be openly discussed and addressed is beneficial for both young people and school staff, but that is more easily said than done. Luckily, Katherine Weare, Professor of Education at the University of Southampton, worked with the National Children’s Bureau to publish a dossier of advice on promoting social and emotional wellbeing and responding to mental health problems in schools. We’ve picked out some of the key findings below:

‘Whole school’ approach

When creating an open and inclusive environment where children feel comfortable to talk about mental health concerns, it’s important that the whole school and surrounding community are involved. All members of staff should be trained and have appropriate leadership and clear guidelines to follow. Involving parents and caregivers has also been shown to make school initiatives around mental health more effective, said Professor Weare, “both by helping family life reinforce the messages of the school, and through helping parents and carers develop their own parenting skills and attitudes”.   

Focus on wellbeing

Don’t relegate discussions of mental health and emotional wellbeing, and feelings to a context of problems, issues or negativity. Try to foster a culture in which talking about these topics openly is the norm, and where positive discussions on emotional and mental strengths and capabilities are encouraged. This creates an environment where it’s socially acceptable to ask for help and where, as Professor Weare puts it, “extra input to those with more serious problems can be provided in a coherent and non-stigmatising way”. Fear of discrimination due to stigma around mental health issues is a huge barrier to young people reaching out for help. A report by the YMCA showed that over half of young people who had experienced stigma said it made them less likely to speak to a professional, and four in five said that school is the best place to tackle it.

Promote the wellbeing of staff

Teaching is a taxing job at the best of times, so having robust audit systems in place within schools to ensure that educators are not placed under undue stress or an unmanageable workload is essential for creating supportive environments where staff and students feel able to ask for, and provide, help. Professor Weare says it best: “Wellbeing in schools starts with the staff: they are in the front line of this work, and it is hard for them to be genuinely motivated to promote emotional and social well-being in others if they feel uncared for and burnt out themselves.” It is essential that we prioritise the mental health of school staff.

Help students through predictable changes

Secondary school can be a turbulent time for any child, moving up through the school years and ever-changing social circles, discovering their sexual identity, making academic decisions which could shape their future careers – there’s a lot going on! The omnipresence of social media can potentially contribute to stress or anxiety around these things. So, to help promote a culture of social and emotional well-being in school, it’s important that teachers stay alert to changes that students might be going through – looking out for signs of anxiety about exams or social isolation from their peers, for example – to help them manage the ups and downs of teenage life. “They particularly need to ensure they keep up to date with ongoing rapid social changes, including new technologies and the opportunities and threats they pose, and formulate appropriate responses, especially for safeguarding more vulnerable pupils,” says Professor Weare.

A lot of the advice above really boils down to making sure there are open lines of communication and frequent, stigma-free discussions around mental health issues. But whoever said that talking to young people about potentially sensitive topics was easy? Even teachers with the very best of intentions may not know quite where to start. So the Samaritans have created a free resource called DEAL (Developing Emotional Awareness and Listening) to help education professionals support young people, which includes, among other things, online teaching resources, lesson plans and handouts.

Increasing awareness of mental health will take time, but progress is being made. Teaching young people how to talk openly about mental health, and letting them know that it’s okay to ask for help, plays a huge part in creating a future society where mental health problems (which one in four of us experience each year) are free from stigma.

Links to all the resources discussed in this blog are listed below, along with other resources you may find helpful:

What works in promoting and social and emotional well-being and responding to mental health problems in schools? | National Children’s Bureau

DEAL: Developing Emotional Awareness and Listening | Samaritans

I am Whole: A report investigating the stigma faced by by young people experiencing mental health difficulties | YMCA, NHS

Impact of Social Media on Youth Mental Health | University of Nevada

Mental Health Statistics | Young Minds

Mental Health Awareness | BookTrust

Saving Young LGBTQ Lives | The Trevor Project

Helping your staff | Education Support

How to start a conversation with children and young people about mental health | Mentally Healthy Schools

Home | Mind

Suicide Prevention for Men - Liverpool and London | James' Place Charity | James' Place