Mental Health in Schools: What Next?

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A conference last week organised by E-ACT Ideas in partnership with TES, Mental Health in Schools: What Next? brought together a varied range of speakers who are clearly passionate about changing perception and practice around mental health in schools.
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Though the speakers’ expertise and practice differed considerably, one of the key threads running through, placed mental health in schools at the very centre, not as an add on, an extra lesson or a themed week. To really address the mental health needs of children and young people today the shift has to be significant. To do that systemic change is needed.  A whole-school approach is called for, a school’s ethos and values are where it all starts. Valuing every member of the school community, ensuring a supportive culture for students and staff is crucial. Notably, school staff need to take care of their own mental health to be in a position to support their students. Modelling self-care within a staffing structure can be a start. Do as I do, not as I say. Language is important to name and frame experience and actions. Community involvement was at the heart of one school's mission to make mental health and wellbeing a priority.

It was clear from those that spoke, things were unlikely to change significantly if it were simply left to schools; no one suggested this was practical or indeed right. Poverty, poor housing, prejudice and injustice all contribute to a nation’s poor mental health and these issues are not within the gift of a school to eradicate or even effectively address. Schools play a part, but so much more needs to happen beyond the school gates.

The conference presentations on mindfulness, schools’ culture, education policy and practice, and developing a school-wide wellbeing policy were all interesting - instinctively the head nods as one listens and imagines how to effect change. However, the data and qualitative findings on changes in children’s play over time were the standout act of the conference.

Professor Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology, University of Exeter spoke about her research in changes to children’s access to the outdoors and play and how this impacts on child mental health and wellbeing. In her research children articulated the importance of nature and being outdoors to helping them feel good. One striking quote talked about how only when outdoors could that child ‘really breathe’. School playtimes in England in both Primary and Secondary schools have reduced significantly, the afternoon breaks, common a generation ago have virtually gone. Secondary school lunchtimes are often all about access to food and not social time. Playing out in the rain rarely happens, the withdrawal of playtime as punishment is commonplace. All these actions were shown to have significantly reduced the opportunities for children to be outdoors and to learn how to self direct themselves alongside others. Professor Dodd talked about the importance of play and being outdoors had on the health and wellbeing of children and of the power schools had to influence a child’s play experience. Clearly, the reduction in play opportunities over time is a complex issue, not just in the hands of schools. Some may argue a school’s hands are tied by priorities handed down by Government or by parental attitudes. Powerfully, Professor Dodd ended her talk with a striking example of a school that had fundamentally changed playtime, offering access to many play activities that gave children the opportunity to be creative, cooperative and self-directed. In a short film, taken over one 45 minute playtime at St Michael’s School in Surrey, it showed what might be possible.

It was uplifting and hopeful.

If shining a spotlight on mental health and wellbeing for a day or a week can inspire individuals, change attitudes, galvanise schools and even Governments to do things differently to positively affect the mental health of children and young people then #mentalheath will have served its purpose.

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