According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 20 per cent of adolescents experience a mental health problem in any given year.
This means that potentially there could be five or six students in a class at any one moment suffering from poor mental health.
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Yet it is difficult for teachers to know how to deal with students with poor mental health.
Tight budgets mean that there is little opportunity for training for most teachers, as mental health often falls under the remit of the school counsellor (if you’re lucky enough to have one) or the pastoral team.
Mental health first aid
Beyond sensitively introducing difficult topics (for example death or violence, which could be root causes of students’ poor mental health) or keeping an ear open for any negative comments from peers, it can seem as though there is very little you can do to support these students
However, while modelling a healthy lifestyle is not a direct method of support as such, it could have a subtle but important impact on students who have difficulties with mental wellbeing. Here's how we can do just that.
1. Eat well, and talk about it
Teachers are role models for students, perhaps more so for those who are vulnerable or do not have strong role models at home, and so the way that teachers act in the classroom, or the way they talk about themselves and their lives, undoubtedly influences the students that they teach.
Eating a healthy lunch while on break duty or talking with students about the nutritional value of certain foods is a good, simple way this can be done.
Teenagers' appetites are affected by growth, so they are likely to find themselves feeling hungry throughout the school day – poor quality food choices, or skipping meals altogether, can lead to tiredness and low mood.
And, even more significantly, adolescents with poor diets are twice as likely to experience symptoms of depression than those with healthier diets.
It stands to reason, then, that teachers should model a balanced diet and a healthy attitude towards food.
2. The importance of sleep
Poor mental wellbeing is also associated with lack of sleep and, coincidentally, lack of sleep also affects a student's ability to learn.
Teachers should model good sleep hygiene by talking about the importance of bedtime routines and the detrimental impact of too much screen time and caffeine before bed.
It might help to share articles with students which cite statistics from real studies – this could easily be embedded into Maths, English, Science or PSHE lessons.
3. Smile and say hello
In addition to the above, positive relationships with students are key.
A smile can genuinely brighten someone’s day. In fact, many studies have shown that smiling can actually reduce the body’s response to stress and lower blood pressure.
So, stand at the door and greet every student with a genuine smile. Smile at students as you pass them in the corridor.
Smile if you see them in Tesco or at the gym, even if you are wearing your most unsightly jogging bottoms.
Who knows, it could go some way towards improving their mood in that moment and might even make you feel better too?
You never know who it might benefit
Remember that any student could be suffering with poor mental health at any given time – not just the ones flagged up by the pastoral team.
Teachers aren’t mental health workers, and most of them will never be trained in this area, but genuine concern for students’ wellbeing and lending a sympathetic ear can go a long way.
Laura Tsabet is director of CPD and ITT at a school in Bournemouth