Mental health

Mental health first aid is as important as physical first aid

St John Ambulance led the campaign to put physical first aid on the curriculum, writes one Year 13 volunteer, and now it must do it again with mental health

St John Ambulance led the campaign to put physical first aid on the curriculum, writes one Year 13 volunteer, and now it must do it again with mental health

18 Jul 2022, 5:00

Mental health issues among young people are at record high levels. According to the NHS, one in six in every classroom in England is struggling with a probable mental health condition.

But young people themselves can be part of the solution. St John Ambulance recently published research that found young people aged 10-17 wanted mental health first aid to be taught in schools.

It was St John Ambulance that successfully campaigned for physical first aid to be taught in schools, and as a result lifesaving skills were added to the curriculum in 2020. Now it’s clear that mental health first aid skills are a necessary additional component.

This became especially apparent during the Covid pandemic. Disruptions to education and routine, reduced social interactions and long periods of isolation were a huge strain on many, and the effects continue to be felt.

Science and PE lessons, as well initiatives such as healthy-eating weeks and walk-to-school days form part of a curriculum that successfully teaches how to look after your physical health. And physical health is an important factor in maintaining mental health, but education on self-care, social skills and resilience, though just as important, is often overlooked.

In February this year, St John Ambulance ran a focus group with headteachers, teachers, and teaching assistants. The research explored the different types of support staff receive to deal with their pupils’ mental health as well as how the curriculum supports young people. While many encouragingly reported that their schools offered wellbeing toolkits and resources, many said staff were not offered mental health training.

This lack of training directly impacts young people. According to research from mental health charity, Mind published in June this year, 96 per cent of pupils have felt their school work had been affected by their mental health. Yet two-thirds said they received no mental health support from their school.

Teachers’ lack of training directly impacts young people

So it is vital that teachers are well-informed and trained on mental health awareness and how to discuss mental health matters with their pupils. What better environment could there be for all young people to gain key life skills through those fundamental conversations? For the most vulnerable, is there any other such environment in their lives? Pupils need to feel confident that they are well-supported in school, and teachers equally need to feel confident in providing that support.

As a St John volunteer, I have been involved in helping develop Young Responders, a £1m programme made possible with funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery to help young people from under-served backgrounds skill up in lifesaving training. Young Responders is a peer-to-peer programme, designed by young people for young people, teaching first aid for street crime injuries, acid attacks, drug awareness, as well as mental health awareness and resilience and mental health first aid.

When developing the Young Responders mental health content, I gained first-hand insight into the areas young people felt were important. The programme content, therefore, not only includes how to cope safely in an emergency situation and guidance on more common mental health conditions, but includes topics like eating disorders and grief. Incorporating young people’s opinions into the whole process means the programme, when rolled out later this year, is going to be so much more impactful and relevant when delivered in under-served communities across London, the West Midlands and North-East .

St John Ambulance is teaching young people to look out for wellbeing warning signs but also building confidence and giving young people the tools to overcome challenges. Until teachers are given the resources and the time to embed mental health first aid as they have physical first aid, we’re here to help.

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  1. It’s already part of the compulsory curriculum for every student, at every key stage, as part of PSHE. The real issue that few schools have the money or staff training to put on effective lessons, and students tend to switch off as they presume they already know it