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'We have not done our job unless we have given young people the skills to manage their mental health'

This headteacher at a specialist school for autism says spotting mental health issues among students with SEND can be difficult, but it is something all schools need to address

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This headteacher at a specialist school for autism says spotting mental health issues among students with SEND can be difficult, but it is something all schools need to address

On the day that the musician Prince died, I experienced an epiphany.

One of our ex-students had returned to Limpsfield Grange for a Duke of Edinburgh award scheme presentation evening. I had previously thought that we had really got it right for this young woman. She had gained some great GCSE qualifications with us and had made a successful transition to college. 

But seeing her was a moment of realisation for me. She had spent the previous six months at home, unable to access the world outside of her bedroom due to some significant anxiety related mental health difficulties. 

My reaction to this was: how can our school be the right one when we haven’t given her the skills and strategies to deal with these difficulties? 

Something at Limpsfield Grange had to change. 

Hidden problems

I’m quite sure that this is not a singular story. Many children and young people with special educational needs have additional mental health needs, and there is very little written about this area. 

Mental health difficulties of young people with special needs are often poorly defined; can present in unusual or atypical ways, and can be masked by the child or young person’s additional needs. 

Autistic children and young people can find it very difficult to express their thoughts feelings and fears, and this can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed or isolated. At least 40 per cent of autistic people have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, according to the National Autistic Society. Many children and young people with autism have additional mental health needs, which can include anxiety, depression, ADHD, ADD or OCD, or other diagnosed mental health illnesses.

Fundamentally, I believe that even with a clutch of impressive qualifications, the biggest barrier to leading a happy healthy adult life for the girls at Limpsfield Grange is their mental and emotional wellbeing. I knew on that day that we need to give students better skills to notice when they are beginning to feel mentally and emotionally out of balance, and strategies to help them rebalance and redress their mental health before any significant problems arise. 

Emerging solutions

We have spent lots of time over the intervening months soul searching at Limpsfield Grange, trying to come up with a response to our ex-students’ experience. One step that we have taken is to deliver Mental Health First Aid training to all staff and some governors. This up-skills people to identify and understand mental health conditions, with the aim of helping people who are developing mental health difficulties.  

We are also devising a Mental Health strategy at school, including bespoke mental health interventions (CBT and ACT based approaches; mindfulness; and yoga based techniques). 

It’s the start of what feels like a very long and important journey. I’ll keep you posted about how we get on. 

Sarah Wild is headteacher at Limpsfield Grange Schoo, a special school for girls with autism. She is on twitter @Head_Limpsfield

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