How to embed mental health into the school curriculum

To reduce the stigma of mental health, we should ensure that support permeates every area of school, says Jane Millward

Jane Millward

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There is often a stigma, a fear factor, attached to mental health. If there’s only one person in an academy who you can go to, it becomes a big deal to seek them out. If you have to make an appointment with a special someone in a special room, that almost accentuates the stigma. And, of course, it may well be that at that precise time when you really need help, that one person just isn’t available.

While it’s better than nothing, it’s nowhere near enough.

Sadly, one in 10 children have been clinically diagnosed with a mental health disorder in the UK – that’s around three children in every class. This statistic brings sharply into focus our collective responsibility as educators to help pupils maintain and manage their mental health. We all know that good mental health is absolutely vital if pupils are to be able to learn and thrive.

Our own survey results reflect this growing crisis in young people’s mental health across the country. Back in 2017, almost a third of our pupils – over 5,000 young people – told us they felt stressed either most or all the time, while hundreds reported signs of common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

These stark results show me clearly that we, as an academy trust, need to be proactive to support the 18,000 children across our 29 primary and secondary academies. Most schools are training one or two members of staff in mental health first aid, but, going back to my original point, it’s so important that our children can choose who to turn to, who they trust the most. That’s why we are training every single adult in our academies, from classroom teachers to our receptionists – an incredible 811 to date – so that they have the tools they need to recognise signs of mental health issues and support the mental wellbeing of all our students when they need it most.

A bespoke mental health curriculum

The vast majority of the young people that attend E-ACT academies come from disadvantaged areas, and the wide geographical spread means that our pupils face a diverse range of social pressures and concerns. The issues of mental health in Sheffield, for example, might be very different from the issues faced by children in Brent, North London. We can’t generalise. Rather than an off-the-shelf curriculum, we are rolling out a bespoke mental health curriculum for each of our academies that will be very specific to the context in which they live.

Above all, we need to understand in far more detail what issues are important to our children, and so we are involving them in developing the curriculum for their own academy. We have already started meeting with groups of children in each of the regions we operate in so they can tell us what they think the curriculum should include. But there are areas that will be common to all academies. At primary, for example, pupils will be discussing emotions and their impact on wellbeing. At secondary, pupils will explore topics such as anxiety, depression, psychosis and eating disorders.

Mental health isn’t just a youth issue – more than one in six working-age adults are depressed, anxious or experiencing stress-related problems at any one time. So at E-ACT, we are extending our duty of care on mental health to our colleagues as well as our pupils. As such, we now have seven adult mental health first-aid instructors who have so far trained 148 E-ACT staff as adult mental health first-aiders. It doesn’t stop there, we’ve also been looking at ways that we can support parents, introducing coffee mornings with mental health first-aiders and mental health champions.

We’re already seeing the difference in our students and our staff. It’s helping them to stop and think, question and identify any out of the ordinary behaviour and dig deeper into the causes. For example, one colleague told us about a school refuser who was showing unusual behaviours. Staff had put this down to his autistic spectrum disorder, but through the training they realised it may be psychosis. Now that student is getting the support he needs.

Support for pupils, teachers and parents

A year on, almost two-thirds of our academies (64 per cent) are reporting improvements in attendance, our HR colleagues are changing the way they do things like improving return-to-work initiatives, and through our surveys we know that pupils’ attitudes to self and their feelings about school have improved.

The stigma is reducing, and everyone is becoming more aware of the signs. And that’s all before the curriculum is rolled out.

We need to think again about how mental health is approached in our schools, and ask ourselves this: is it just an add-on, a tick-box exercise? Or something we are embedding right across everything we do? At E-ACT, we are proud to be shouting about mental health and giving our pupils, teachers and parents the support they need, whenever and wherever they need it.

Jane Millward is designate chief executive of E-ACT academy trust

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