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Focus turns to hearts and minds

Jo Kopela talks to Douglas Blane about how she hopes to improve the mental health of pupils and teachers.

The biggest challenge facing teachers today, according to the influential American psychologist Daniel Goleman, is that children are more withdrawn, unhappy, anxious, depressed, impulsive and unable to concentrate than ever before.

In a recent interview, the author of Emotional Intelligence drew attention to the contrast between the 20th century's steady rise in IQ scores and the "major drop in children's most basic social and emotional skills".

A smart strategy for helping children gain these skills, he said, would be to "bring such lessons into the classroom and the day to day life of the whole school".

It is one of the key objectives of health promoting schools, says Jo Kopela, the national development officer for mental and emotional health and well-being with the Scottish Health Promoting Schools Unit. There are, however, some barriers to be overcome.

"The words themselves often conjure up a negative image of mental illness.

So one of our first challenges is to try to replace that with a positive image of mental health and well-being," she says.

"We want to help improve the emotional literacy of young people and their teachers. We want to give them the words and the confidence to talk about all the issues that impact on emotional health and well-being.

"This is not only about people at high risk of mental illness. It is about health promotion and prevention of illness among the whole school population."

Ms Kopela's previous experience in leading the NHS health improvement programme for education in Dumfries and Galloway - which primarily concerned the development of health promoting schools - will stand her in good stead. However, the move to a national role, while "really exciting", does impose a different perspective.

"With around 3,000 schools in Scotland, we won't be able to develop the same kind of relationship with each as we could at regional level. So we'll be getting to know the organisations and networks that support delivery at a local level. We will be working through them, as well as consulting and developing guidance and frameworks for schools," she says.

While recognising the "enormous amount of very good work already in schools", Ms Kopela believes that moving emotional and mental health higher up the educational agenda is imperative.

"There is a lot of focus on promoting physical health, but it is important to integrate mental health promotion into all health promotion work in schools to achieve the greatest impact on the health and well-being of children and young people," she says.

Helping schools with sustainability is another key issue. "We don't want this to be just about short-term projects that come and go. We need to develop good practice profiles, look at what's out there, pull it all together."

School management has a key role in creating and nurturing an ethos built upon care and welfare and respecting and listening to people. When the most valuable curriculum programmes have been identified, building them into school development plans will ensure their sustainability.

It is already apparent that certain broad types of initiative provide a firm foundation, she says. "Besides the emotional literacy programmes - some in use already, some under development - many schools are developing peer support and buddying systems. These have great potential.

"Some schools use music, art and drama as an alternative language to help young people express how they feel.

"A lot of work is being done to support children in transitions - particularly from primary to secondary school - both in a generic way and to identify children and young people who might be especially vulnerable."

Some authorities employ mental health link workers, she says, who go into schools to help children deal with various problems - bereavement, depression, anger, abuse - and also work with the teachers and other school staff.

"That whole area of teachers' continuing professional development is vital," she says. "Staff are often ready to embrace health promoting schools but don't necessarily feel equipped to deliver on issues around mental and emotional well-being. So training and development is essential to help them promote the pupils' health, and their own."

"The benefits of actively promoting mental health and well-being in schools is very much evidence based. Paying attention to the emotional and mental health of young people reaps educational benefits."

To discuss emotional and mental health in schools, or for information on programmes, contact the national development officer, Jo Kopela tel 07973 388170

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