A safe place for everyone

7th December 2007 at 00:00
Taking a holistic approach to mental health in schools, through mutual support and openness, is important for teachers as well as pupils, says Kairen Cullen.Teachers are not specialists in mental health, they do not need to be. But they are concerned about the general well-being of their pupils and have an extensive working knowledge of "normal" child and adolescent development and behaviour.

And, since the Government's 2001 guidance on promoting children's mental health in schools, more and more non-education professionals - counsellors, therapists and clinical psychologists - have moved into the school environment. This has changed the context. Supporting the mental health of pupils is no longer just the preserve of staff whose job title includes the word "pastoral".

But if you are going to be effective in this role, you may need support. For one thing, you may suffer from many of the same problems as your pupils. If you are going to recognise and help to tackle distress in others, you may first need help in dealing with your own.

This was made all too clear to me during work in a large and challenging secondary school, where I found that support groups offered to pupils were needed just as much by staff. Pupils met weekly in small groups for half a term, to work on making their school experience better. Although the initial aims of this work were to equip and empower pupils, unexpected spin-offs included improvements in their attendance, performance and behaviour - and a perception by staff of being more supported in their everyday work.

The groups proved so popular that they led to regular feedback and discussion sessions with staff. I found that many of the issues pupils raised about their life in school were shared by staff, such as feeling unheard, powerless, ineffective, lonely, unvalued, pressured, uncomfortable and misunderstood.

An informal staff support group began to meet. It was a fairly light-hearted and enjoyable forum but the quality of listening, acceptance and support teachers gave to each other was phenomenal. All was going well until one of the deputy heads decided that the group should be more formally organised and evaluated. Soon the only people present were two deputies, me and a newly qualified teacher.

I learnt a very valuable lesson from this: that teachers' emotional and mental health needs are best met on a voluntary and organic basis and not through a structure imposed by school management.

Some time later, a teacher who had regularly attended the staff group approached me about Janie, a pupil in her Year 9 form group. Janie had a complex family background and was diagnosed with an eating disorder and depression. She was receiving weekly sessions in school from a clinical psychologist and she and her family also had specialist mental health social worker support and family therapy outside school.

Janie's form tutor played a valuable non-specialist role, acting as a sensible, experienced and trusted point of contact and continuity. However, she was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the demands made on her by Janie and her family and the professionals involved. I was able to help her by discussing the issues, taking on some of the links with other professionals and the family, and monitoring and reviewing Janie's progress.

While teachers are key people in supporting the mental health of children and adults, they should not be stretched to the point where their own mental health is compromised.

True, the Government is promoting the idea that staff well-being is important and various initiatives have been introduced, such as the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) programme of staff development and the Well-Being project. Individual schools, recognising the stressful nature of teachers' work, have introduced measures such as yoga, relaxation and stress management.

This is all good stuff but relatively superficial. What is also needed is a more holistic approach to mental health in schools, characterised by a climate of openness and mutual support. Pupils should feel able to talk to adults without fear of stigma or being categorised as "ill"; staff should have the time to give them this support; parents and staff should communicate freely; and staff, including managers, should support each other and have professional back-up and training so that they know when to refer pupils on for specialist help. What is good for pupils' mental health and well-being is good for you too

Kairen Cullen is a chartered educational psychologist.


Billington, T. (2006) Working With Children. London: Sage Publications

DfEE (2001) "Promoting Children's Mental Health within Early years and School Settings". Nottingham: DFEE Publications

DfES (2005) (Primary National Strategy) "Excellence and Enjoyment: social and emotional aspects of learning".

Guidance 1378-2005 G DfES publications

Greig, A. (2004) "Childhood depression - Part 1: Does it need to be dealt with only by health professionals?" Educational and Child Psychology 21, 4, 43-54

Greig, A. (2004) "Childhood depression - Part 2: The role of the educational psychologist in the recognition and intervention of childhood depression" Educational and Child Psychology 21, 4, 55-66

The Well-Being programme, Worklife support, www.worklifesupport.com index.cfmp=1838

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