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'Schools can help Mental Health Awareness Week'

We can't let Mental Health Awareness Week be overshadowed by the royal wedding, says Tes' mental health columnist

mental health awareness week

We can't let Mental Health Awareness Week be overshadowed by the royal wedding, says Tes' mental health columnist

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. This annual event usually generates a flurry of activity from press and campaigners around a specific theme (this year’s theme is stress). Whilst this undoubtedly has value, the week inevitably attracts criticism from those who say that mental health issues impact a significant proportion of the population for 52 weeks, not one week, of the year.

In fact, according to a brand new survey commissioned by Bauer Media, 56 per cent of British people have had a mental health issue, debunking the "one in four" statistic that’s endlessly quoted. Incidentally, when I told a colleague of mine who has worked as an NHS psychologist for more than 30 years about the findings of the Bauer study, his words were "that’s more like it".

Whilst the idea that we focus on mental health awareness for one week won’t magically solve mental health problems for the 36 million British people who, by this calculation, have suffered, it is at least something. This year, however, we face an additional challenge. Because, as you will no doubt be aware, on 19 May Prince Harry marries Meghan Markle.

For the record, I’m delighted by this. I consider it timely and fitting that Britain finally has a princess of colour. I like Meghan. She seems interesting, compassionate and independent. (I like her even more because the Daily Mail have made it so abundantly clear that they do not). I’m as chuffed as the next person. Yet, inevitably, the carefully crafted and planned awareness campaigns and fundraising initiatives, which charities and individuals work on for weeks and years leading up to Mental Health Awareness Week, are going to get swallowed up in Royal Wedding pre-coverage.

So, this column is in many ways a call to arms. Below are four ways in which schools and colleges can support activity happening this MHAW. Tell your friends. Take to social media. Shout it from the rooftops. Let’s send an unequivocal message that mental health matters, all year round:

1. Pupil project

Brands, and therefore the media outlets which rely on their sponsorship, really care what young people want, since they dictate forthcoming trends.

The Mental Health Media Charter is a document containing seven simple rules for anyone who wants to speak or write about mental health responsibly. In doing so they can reduce stigma, increase understanding and even save lives. Since its launch for World Mental Health Day in October 2017, more than 50 outlets have signed up, including Tes. In turn, the landscape of mental health reporting has been changed for the better. But we need more.

I’ve tried writing to the editor of every publication and station in the UK (three times) inviting them, but a large proportion of my missives have gone unanswered. So, for MHAW, we’re asking the public to do it for us and to show that they would welcome this change. In return for persuading bloggers, influencers, and media outlets to sign up, you can win goodies including books and badges – and we particularly want young people to get involved.

This would make an ideal classroom project, since it’s an opportunity to be inventive. Find out more at @MHMediaCharter on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

2. Staffroom stress

According to an investigation by the BBC last year, more than three-quarters of teachers had taken time off work for a physical or mental health issue they attributed directly to the stress of their job during the preceding year.

It’s well documented that stress can cause long-term health problems and costs the economy billions in lost working hours, but what can we do about it? Mental Health First Aid England has produced a resource looking at the best ways to tackle stress and it’s free to download and share with your colleagues and leadership team. Just click here to find out more.

3. Non-uniform day

Did you know that for every £1,500 spent on cancer research, only £10 is spent on mental health? That's despite the prevalence being around the same – each affects one in three or one in four people, depending on which study you read. This, in turn, means there's a lot more work to do in understanding the nature of, and the best way to treat, mental illness.

Campaigner Claire Eastham has set herself a target of raising £1,000 during MHAW this year for MQ – a charity that specifically focuses on scientific mental health research which will benefit millions. To support Claire, click here. You could even host a non-uniform day or cake sale to help her smash her target.

4. Further Education

In 2016, Theresa May’s government committed a huge chunk of change to supporting teachers with mental health challenges and set out its vision of having a qualified mental health first aider in every school. It wasn’t perfect, but it was, at least, something.

The weekend saw a focus on university campus mental health, as it was acknowledged that more could be done to support students.

As they so often are, colleges were once again left out of the picture. That’s why a campaign launched today by Bauer Media and myself, which calls for a change in the law so that there would be a mental health first aider in every workplace, specifically mentions colleges.

We have just six weeks to get 100,000 signatures and to be in with a chance of this being enshrined in law. Click here to sign the petition and find out more.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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