And he . . . Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence to a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and by this declension
Into the madness wherein now he raves,
And all we mourn for. – Polonius, Hamlet.
Anecdotally, there seems little doubt that we are seeing a major rise in mental health issues amongst adolescents. Whilst there may be some truth in the suggestion that some of these ‘needs’ are manufactured, there is also some evidence that there has been a sharp rise in both the number and severity of mental health cases. In my own school, the number of severe case has more than doubled this year.
In response to this situation (some would say crisis), we hear again the plaints of those demanding that schools ‘need to do more’, just as schools have also been asked to ‘do more’ with sex and relationships education, drug education, healthy eating, radicalisation, British values, character, financial education, community cohesion, equality, diversity, and citizenship – to name but a few of the many additional tasks that schools are expected to take on – in addition to the more ‘core business’ of raising academic standards, preparing students for an endless, churning mill-race of curriculum and assessment changes, narrowing the achievement gap, meeting floor standards, succeeding in Ofsted inspections and competing in league tables.
Quite understandably, it is a cause of some disquiet to teachers that serious, potentially life-threatening, and time-consuming issues should be tossed into that mill-race. Apart from the risks to the students, attempting to intervene in mental health issues could severely compromise teachers’ abilities to effectively carry out their ‘core’ functions of planning, teaching and assessment. And it is not as if teachers’ own mental health is exactly in tip-top shape, particularly under the often soul-destroying pressures pervasive in the current incarnation of the education system. Teachers are being responsible when they resist calls to become counsellors and amateur psychologists.
It is not so simple in the real world, where we are not able to neatly segment our lives, and our students’ lives. We should maintain professional boundaries, but this does not mean that we can ignore the pain in front of us. Most of us would do our best to support a colleague who was experiencing mental health problems. Why would we ignore our students? The fact is, we can’t. Mental health is a specifically named set of needs in SEND legislation, and students are entitled to support where such needs affect their ability to access the curriculum. There is also a swathe of guidance from the DfE on safeguarding, so any teacher who thinks that they can ignore mental health issues in their classroom is likely to be on very shaky ground.
So – what do you do when confronted with a student with mental health needs?
The answer, of course, depends on the needs, and the situation. Is there an imminent risk of harm, or has the student already been harmed? How are other students being affected? To what extent is there support available from home, and what support services are in the school? Being able to ask ourselves questions like these, and knowing who to go to for advice and referrals, are the equivalent of a mental health first aid kit.
Schools have policies on safeguarding, child protection, bullying, and wellbeing. Linked to these policies should be clear procedures for referring students’ needs to the appropriate service within the school. Ideally schools will have specialist staff who are trained and who are linked with external agencies to ensure that a secure net of support is woven around the student both at school and at home.
So we would hope – but of course, in reality, the agencies are overstretched, in-school provision is patchy at best, and specialist staff are not only hard to come by but funding to employ them is being squeezed. In these circumstances, there are two dangers: that we attempt to do more than we should in response to the urgency of the need, or that we attempt too little because we are overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. In the former scenario teachers can get in over their heads very quickly, sometimes with painful results. In the latter, apathy allows disaster to engulf young lives when the right conversation could have led to better support.
So how should schools deal with mental health?
First, schools need pro-active policies in place to ensure that mental health needs are understood as normal human experiences, and that it is healthy to seek support when you need it, whether informally through friends and family, or formally though pastoral services. Secondly, all staff need training in the basic ‘first aid’ procedures for mental health: assessing the immediacy of risk, notifying appropriate personnel, and managing incidents to minimise harm and disruption. Thirdly, schools need to have sound provision in place for students who need specialist support, and a clear procedure for inter-agency working to ensure round-the-clock care where it is needed.
The last item is the one that costs the most money. And even if we find the money, who will deliver the service? This paper by the DfE sets out principles for setting up a service in a school that is embedded, but independent (see p.21). We use a similar model in my current school and I’m very grateful we have it. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that we can’t improve, but even with the many compromises required to keep a small organisation working within a much larger one, the service does an excellent job at holding students who would otherwise not be able to access the opportunities that school has to offer. In other words, we keep them coming back to school. They haven’t given up.
Should teachers attempt to take on the roles of counsellors and therapists? No. But nor can we ignore the needs in front of us. As responsible adults, we should ensure that systems, procedures and resources are in place to protect the most vulnerable. This is good safeguarding practice, and not optional. While I understand the desire for teachers to maintain their professional boundaries, and work within their expertise, school leaders have a responsibility to ensure that provision is in place and that everyone knows the process to follow when we become aware of student needs.
Slogans and dismissals won’t do. In the world of broken, mixed-up people we work with (people like ourselves), effectively responding to mental health needs can literally be a matter of life and death.