Mental health

How to create a positive whole-school mental health culture

It'll take longer more than a mental health awareness week to combat childhood loneliness, writes Rachel Bostick, but the good news is schools can do a lot

It'll take longer more than a mental health awareness week to combat childhood loneliness, writes Rachel Bostick, but the good news is schools can do a lot

16 May 2022, 5:00

Issues with mental health and wellbeing can stifle aspiration and prevent children from achieving their full potential. So creating a positive culture of wellbeing in schools is an imperative, and tackling loneliness and encouraging pupils to share experiences is at the very heart of this.

With good reason, loneliness is the theme of this year’s mental health awareness week. It can strike at any age, and it is inextricably linked to poor mental health.

In our hyperconnected world of social media, messaging apps and online gaming, young people may feel that everyone else is out there making friends, and that makes their loneliness even harder to bear. Add two long years of pandemic disruption (with increased reliance on these technologies), and the result is that children’s sense of isolation has heightened, with devastating effect on their wellbeing. According to NHS Digital, one in six children aged six to 16 in England had a probable mental health condition in 2021, up from one in nine in 2017.

The importance of shared experience

Many children find it difficult to articulate feelings of loneliness, or prefer not to admit to them. Reducing stigma as a barrier is an important reason for schools to encourage conversations about wellbeing.

Regular wellbeing events encourage an open dialogue among pupils, and that can stretch beyond the school gate. Inviting neighbouring schools to take part is an effective way to share the message and to bring pupils together with other young people in their community.

But it can’t be left to standalone activities. Rather than addressing mental health as a separate item on the agenda, embedding discussions about loneliness, anxiety or isolation into the curriculum helps to normalise the theme.

For example, a PSHE lesson on e-safety can open up discussion about how social media can paradoxically make us feel less connected, creating an opportunity for young people to talk openly about their feelings. Likewise, an English lesson about a character in a play can allow a quieter child to talk about loneliness without worrying that they may be giving too much away about themselves.

Taking a lead

But just discussing the issues is not enough, and it’s unreasonable to expect all teachers to be experts in tackling their pupils’ mental health challenges. Nevertheless, more than 400,000 under-18s were referred for specialist mental health support last year alone, and only one-third accessed the help they needed. This leaves school staff picking up the slack.

Appointing a mental health lead to direct children and staff to the support groups or resources they need can help. A senior member of staff tasked with championing wellbeing provides not only a first point of contact for children and staff who need support, but also a bridge to the school’s decision-making body.

And if that dedicated person also oversees pastoral services, they can reinforce a culture of wellbeing across the curriculum and send out a clear message that wellbeing is everyone’s priority.

Pupil voice

And on the topic of decision-making bodies, it is important to accept that the culture shift required to improve wellbeing will need pupils’ buy-in. This ensures we avoid assumptions and don’t dictate what action we think is needed.

Many schools conduct wellbeing surveys, but simply asking pupils what support they need rarely gets to the crux of the matter. Instead, capture your school’s pupil voice by asking questions that enable you to take affirmative action. Asking “at what times during the school week do you feel stressed or lonely?” can direct specific initiatives such as mindfulness sessions or activities in breaktime. The pupils can then advise on what activities they would like.

Younger children respond well to questions like “what makes you a great friend?”. By discussing the results of these questions, children will start to recognise how their actions can build friendships and reduce loneliness for others.

We can alleviate the pain of loneliness for young people by changing the way wellbeing is supported and nurtured. It’ll take longer than a mental health awareness week, but what a truly positive legacy of the pandemic that could be.



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