Exploding the myths about mental health
Secondary teachers are eager to help pupils with mental health issues but the vast majority have no idea how to do so, research reveals.
More than two-thirds of teachers admit that they would prefer not to teach a class that includes pupils with mental health problems, according to a study by Dr Amy Hamilton-Roberts of Cardiff University's School of Psychology.
A high proportion of adults with mental health problems are first diagnosed while they are at secondary school, and studies have consistently shown that mental health difficulties can affect pupils' family and social relationships - as well as their ability to perform academically. Such problems can also lead to truancy and exclusion.
Hamilton-Roberts argues that it is therefore vital for teachers to be able to detect mental health problems and help pupils to access appropriate treatment. Indeed, she points out that the government released a document in 2004 which specified that all staff working with children and teenagers should be able to identify mental health problems, intervene and offer a specialist referral where appropriate.
But Hamilton-Roberts, who surveyed 217 secondary teachers across nine local authorities to find out whether they would be able to deal with such problems, found that many felt ill-equipped to do so.
Around 80 per cent of teachers were very willing to support the mental health needs of pupils, but more than half said that they did not feel confident about doing this. Indeed, more than two-thirds said that they would prefer not to teach a class that included pupils with mental health difficulties.
This was partly attributable to lack of training: 85 per cent of interviewees believed they had been inadequately trained. The most common form of training was in detecting and handling eating disorders, but only 20 per cent of teachers had received even this. "Generally, participants perceived their level of mental health training to be low to non-existent," Hamilton-Roberts says.
Higher-level training increases teachers' confidence in their ability to deal with a problem successfully. But it also clarifies the benefits for teachers of tackling mental health problems. "Supporting the mental health needs of pupils can help with learning and achievement, and ... can also have positive implications for a teacher's work, in terms of managing difficult and worrying behaviours," she says.
Older teachers were less willing to tackle mental health problems among pupils than their younger colleagues. This could be a consequence of "stress and burnout", Hamilton-Roberts says, but may also reflect levels of training and free time.
Teachers were also more willing to intervene with pupils when they had experience of mental health problems themselves. This can also benefit the pupils. "Many general mental health programmes recognise the value of individuals having contact with someone who has had or is experiencing a mental health problem," she says.
However, more than a third of teachers felt that mental health issues should be treated in a clinical setting. And while they lacked confidence in dealing with problems themselves, most were aware of the specialist support available.
But, Hamilton-Roberts believes, this is not necessarily good enough. Teachers, she says, may come to believe that they need a particular set of specialist skills before they approach pupils about a problem. In fact, there is a lot of practical advice that they can offer informally. This would also help to remove pupils' fears of being stigmatised by specialist treatment.
Problem: teachers are not confident in their ability to support the mental health needs of pupils.
- Offer professional development sessions for existing staff, making it very clear what would be expected from teachers with no additional pastoral responsibilities.
- Tailor teacher-training courses to include advice on supporting pupils with mental health problems.
- In both cases, emphasise the benefits for teachers as well as pupils.
Problem: teachers with personal experience of mental health problems are more willing to help pupils than those without that experience.
- Bring a speaker with experience of mental health difficulties into school to address staff.
- Bring in adults who experienced mental health difficulties while at school to talk about their experiences.
- Include educational videos of young people discussing their mental health problems in training programmes.
Problem: teachers are tempted to refer mental health issues on to a specialist immediately.
- Training should emphasise the importance of classroom teachers in any intervention.
- Encourage pastoral staff to work collaboratively with teaching staff, rather than taking on all responsibility for a problem.
Problem: older teachers are less willing than younger colleagues to intervene when pupils have mental health problems.
- Offer professional development courses to staff at all levels.
- Ensure that the emotional well-being of staff is also a priority, and that teachers do not feel overly stressed.
Hamilton-Roberts, A., A Proposed Model for Predicting the Willingness of Mainstream Secondary Teachers to Support the Mental Health Needs of Pupils (2012).
School of Psychology, Cardiff University.