Education about mental health needs our dogged support
My brother’s dog Bo is a whippet with a sometimes anxious disposition. Yet for one day the skittish hound allowed himself to be surrounded by dozens of small children at a London primary school, all eager to give him a pat.
The reason for his visit was that the Reception class pupils had been asked to talk about what made them feel better when they were upset. My nephew’s answer to this question had been simple: his dog.
So, as one of the school’s activities to mark Children’s Mental Health Week, Bo was invited in to meet the class - and to prompt a discussion among the children about the different ways they helped themselves feel better when they were low.
News of this visit delighted me for a number of reasons, including that it got a write-up in the school newsletter, which described the whippet as “incredibly sweet and affectionate”. But the main reason for my delight was because the event was an illustration of how embedded conversations about mental health have started to become in schools, right from Reception.
That may, in turn, be a reflection of how broader society has started to shift away from treating mental health as practically taboo towards discussing it with greater openness.
However, a lot of the credit for its greater prominence within education needs to go to the specific organisations that have championed it. Charities including YoungMinds, Place2Be and the Anna Freud Centre have been arguing for years that primary and secondary schools need to give more attention to improving mental wellbeing, and also receive more support to do it properly.
They and others have created many free resources that are highly appreciated by teachers, such as toolkits for monitoring and measuring young people’s mental wellbeing, advice on risk factors, and presentations on the topic to show pupils of different ages in assemblies.
Ensuring teachers have tools like that is critical. Almost every teacher is likely to have a pupil who has had a mental health difficulty. Indeed one in 10 primary school age children has an identifiable mental health problem, with boys twice as likely as girls to be affected. Any teacher may find themselves supporting a pupil facing bereavement, anger issues or stress. And every child should learn about how to talk about their mental health as it is a valuable life-skill for everyone.
Despite its importance, however, there is a risk of mental health being lost among the many topics competing for schools’ attention, and the many societal problems educators seem expected to fix by magic.
Here we need to be grateful to The Royal Foundation. You have to give credit to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for how they have used their influence to shift the conversation around mental health in the UK, and unite organisations to help improve it in schools.
Not only has their Heads Together campaign helped to give the issue prominence in education, and tackle the stigma around it, the Duchess of Cambridge’s Mentally Healthy Schools site has also made it easier for teachers to find the best hand-picked resources from the many created by the charities mentioned earlier, and others.
As teachers in the UK use Tes Resources more than any other website for finding teaching materials, we hope we can give this fantastic project an even greater boost with our new section featuring a taster of the resources specially chosen by the campaign.
We also wholeheartedly back Heads Together because it recognises that pupils are not the only ones in schools who need support.
Earlier this year I was at a conference on mental health in education where the Duchess of Cambridge highlighted research showing that the positive development of children is directly linked to those who care for them - including their teachers.
“It is therefore vital that we support teachers with their own wellbeing so that they can provide the best level of care for all children in their schools and communities in which they work,” she said.
At Tes Resources, we could not agree more. Among the resources highlighted in the new section you will find materials designed to help educators support themselves, and each other.
We hope as many teachers as possible will find them useful, and will consider what they can do to protect their own mental health in what can be an extremely stressful job. Whether it is talking with family, colleagues, professionals or spending quiet time with an affectionate whippet, that, however, is up to you.
Michael Shaw is director of Tes Resources