I cannot deny that I am mildly obsessed when it comes to mental health and emotional wellbeing in young people. I can’t see how anyone who works in schools can feel otherwise.
We are in the business of educating children, but that is about far more than merely preparing them to pass exams and gain places at higher education institutions.
An educated person is one who has a well-developed sense of self and a belief in his or her right to contribute to society. A prerequisite has to be emotional wellbeing.
The nub of the problem is that we trained as teachers, not as mental health professionals. By the same token, we are not physicians; but that does not stop us from ministering first aid when it is needed. We are frightened by mental ill health because we don’t always know how to help.
We need to do more work on spotting mental health issues as early as possible. Far too frequently, the symptoms of mental ill health are not noticed until the condition has taken hold. By then, it is far more difficult to put in place the right support. If a pupil has a physical injury or illness, we don’t stand back and wait for complications to set in – we act quickly and decisively, because we know what to do.
We have seen a huge rise in mental health issues over the past five years. No number of conferences, staff seminars and PSHE sessions on healthy living, sex and relationships, tackling bullying and using the internet safely seems to be stemming the tide sweeping up so many of our young people.
This sometimes feels as though it is a tide that we cannot turn. But we would be the first to tell our pupils that, just because something is difficult, it doesn’t mean that we should concede defeat. We are making progress.
The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) has organised an event with the Association of School and College Leaders to take place in London on 28 April. It will bring together leaders of both independent and state schools in welcome and tangible acknowledgment that this is a battle that we are all determined to win.
The mental health agenda is something that we all embrace, and the conference seeks to take further steps towards making things better for all of our children. Motivated by a shared concern and in a spirit of enquiry, we want to come up with some answers: answers that do not cost a fortune to implement but will be accessible to all.
One idea already making a difference is peer-to-peer learning – a scheme in which Year 12 students are trained to deliver education on welfare issues to younger pupils.
Anyone who has ever taught anything knows that it is often only through teaching that one comes to a mature understanding of the material taught. So the benefit comes both to trainers and to those who they train.
The welfare working group of HMC was created to give us some confidence in knowing what to do, and to break the inertia born of our ignorance about these issues.
I hope that the conference will open up channels of support between schools and those who run them, and that it will facilitate sharing of best practice among all of us who care passionately about the physical and mental wellbeing of our charges.
Sue Freestone is headteacher of King’s Ely in Cambridgeshire