The second way in which teachers can play a crucial role is in spotting the signs of mental health issues. Studies have shown that early intervention makes a lasting difference to the lives of children so this is crucial.
It is often the case that teachers know their students well and can therefore spot the changes in behaviour that may indicate a mental health issue. Broadly speaking, children or young people can become withdrawn, quiet and generally disengaged from school and their peers. "Acting out" can be common, too. So, seeing a student become noisier, or more aggressive, defiant or confrontational can be a sign that they have problems that need to be addressed. Children in both these groups can often become prone to absenteeism.
When staff have these concerns, however small, they should discuss them first with a professional, whether internal or external. Best practice in this area - which works in many schools - is to have a well-established pastoral support team that includes a counsellor. This team can consider and implement the most appropriate intervention. For those without internal teams, teachers need to consider what other services may be available locally - for example, a local doctor or possibly a school nurse, who can refer the student to an external organisation. In the UK, for example, this might be the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
As for informing parents, this has to be considered on a case-by-case basis - often they can be part of the problem. Seek advice from health professionals who have protocols for specific age groups and situations.
Teachers should be aware that things rarely move quickly when external bodies are brought in. In addition, once the child is involved with external organisations, information sharing with the school is often limited. In contrast, when the child or young person is accessing counselling support from a school-based service, the school counsellor, with the permission of the young person, is able to share appropriate information with teachers. This can be invaluable, helping staff to understand and be sensitive to the issues affecting the child.
Children's physical health issues are addressed effectively by educators, but their mental health is just as important and should have equal coverage. The sooner teachers are given as many tools to tackle the latter as the former, the better the situation will be for the millions of children affected worldwide.
Karen Cromarty is senior lead adviser on children and young people at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
How to talk to students about mental health and suicide.
A handy guide to spotting the signs of anxiety disorder and depression in students.
Hawton, K. and James, A. (2005) "ABC of Adolescence: suicide and deliberate self harm in young people", British Medical Journal, 330: 891- 894.
- Mental health problems are as much of an issue for children as they are for adults.
- As such, teachers are key to helping the children in their care who are suffering.
- The first task is education: demystifying mental health problems.
- The second task is spotting when a child has problems. It is vital to discuss any concerns - no matter how small - with professionals.