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Eating disorders and self-harm among under-21s may have doubled and the average age for onset of depression might be 14…

… but here are three simple things that teachers can do to make a difference – the kind of difference that might even save a life or two

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As the brilliant Children’s Mental Health Week comes to a close, and as the plethora of (excellent) scholarly articles written to coincide with the occasion have demonstrated, there is a mountain of work to be done in the field.

CAHMS and social services are not just stretched to capacity – they're way beyond their limits. Meanwhile, the diagnostic criteria for illnesses considered ‘worthy’ of receiving treatment are becoming ever higher as the NHS struggles to cope with demand, meaning thousands of children are struggling beneath the radar. Hospitalisations in under-21s for eating disorders and self-harm have doubled in the past three years and unexpected deaths of patients in care for mental illness have risen by 20 per cent over the same time period. In the 1960s, the average age for onset of depression was 40; today it is just 14.

All of this paints a pretty bleak picture, but it is my hope that the fresh wave of enthusiasm in recent times for tackling the problem will mean that it is not an insurmountable one. I certainly do not intend to stop campaigning until mental illness is given parity of esteem and young people and their teachers can be happier and healthier as a result (or until I die – whichever comes first).

There is one thing that we must never lose in the midst of all this turmoil and despair and that is hope. For, as Caroline Housell from the brilliant Mental Health First Aid England said recently, "We know that mental illness is not only treatable but also preventable."

The current situation might make professionals and parents feel helpless, but we are often more powerful than we realise. When I wrote my book Fundamentals, I interviewed global experts in the field of health and wellbeing from a vast array of psychology, psychiatry and other scientific backgrounds. While their expertise varied wildly, all had one common theme emerge from their research – our day-to-day habits and environment have the potential to provide the fertile soil from which good mental health and high self-esteem can flourish. It doesn’t always take a huge dramatic gesture to alter our perspective; the simple things we do every day have the potential to be equally life changing.

With this in mind, and in an attempt to inject some optimism into discussions, here are three incredibly simple things you can do today to have a positive impact on pupils' mental health:

1. Ask an ‘open question’

The first and most important step towards resolving a mental health issue is to talk and the best way to encourage someone to talk is to ask them a question that doesn’t have a "Yes" or "No" answer.

  • How do you feel about that?
  • What makes you say that?
  • What might happen if?
  • Or, my personal favourite ‘what would you like to happen?’

The last question I have found particularly helpful when a young person is feeling angry, frustrated or is spiralling into depression. It forces them to imagine a solution and, once they tell you, the next question is "OK, how can we make that happen?"

2. Pay a compliment that has nothing to do with looks or grades

We’re always telling children it’s what’s inside that matters. Yet in a pornified world of filtered selfies, celebrity worship and increased pressure to attain a narrowing set of academic qualifications, that can be difficult to remember.

Self-esteem and mental health are inextricably linked. Try to be as imaginative and sincere as possible when praising: bravery, kindness, showing initiative, being a good friend, being helpful, working well as part of a team, conquering a fear, bouncing back from disappointment... All of these qualities aren’t measured by exams and yet are far more crucial tools for navigating life than knowing how to long divide (I’m bitter. I still can’t long divide. I am kind, though).

3. Go outside

Even if it’s a five-minute brisk walk around the playground before class, the mental health benefits of moving frequently and getting a little fresh air have been long proven.

I’m aware that I’m most probably preaching to the choir, here. There is unlikely to be anything above you don’t already practice, yet I wanted to reinforce the importance of the simple things. After all, as a very wise older lady said to me recently: when we look back on our lives, it’s the small and relatively insignificant things that we realise had the most profound impact.

A kind word, a question that makes us think, a deep breath – they can, ultimately, be the difference between life and death.

Natasha Devon is the Department for Education’s mental health champion. She tweets at @natashadevonMBE

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