The experience of the past year has brought a greatly increased focus on mental health that should be sustained as a top priority, writes Michael Samuel

Over the past year, schools and colleges have faced an overwhelming increase in children and young people’s mental health problems. It’s not entirely surprising. When a child’s relationships and routines are disrupted and replaced with isolation and uncertainty, there is bound to be a cost, even before we take into account the impact of illness and bereavement.

As we begin to look to a recovery and the long-term implications for education, I hope the experience will be the catalyst for rethinking our approaches to mental health. In years to come, I hope that we will treat it as we do safeguarding today, that is, as everyone’s responsibility.

But it’s not just about the pandemic. Even in normal times, children’s experiences vary. Not all enjoy school. Some experience bullying. Some find the transition to secondary has made them anxious. Some can’t focus on their work or are embarrassed they aren’t succeeding academically. Poverty and challenging home circumstances are consistent factors too.

Each individual is just that, and blanket responses don’t work. As children and young people return to school and slowly readjust their lives, it is essential to pay attention to two things: each individual’s experiences and the insight that evidence provides. School must be an opportunity to address both, and that means not only supporting them with their mental health but giving them the tools to support themselves.

In March this year, the Anna Freud Centre carried out a poll of over 3,000 children and young people. Overwhelmingly, they said they wanted more information about all aspects of mental health, and 93 per cent said they wanted it taught in the classroom. Almost the same percentage said that friendships were the most important factor positively impacting on their mental health.

Whole-school approaches to mental health make fiscal as well as ethical sense

These figures suggest children and young people want more support (including peer support) and have a desire to learn about mental health. The most obvious way to do this is to develop a whole-school approach – such as the 5 Steps approach developed by our charity. This is a free, simple and interactive framework designed to support schools and colleges to develop a whole-setting approach to mental health and wellbeing.

But what does a whole-school approach mean exactly? On one level, it means making sure that your policies on bullying tie up with your policies on safeguarding. It might mean developing a separate policy on mental health. In 2018, government research covering 100 schools found that only four per cent of primaries and two per cent of secondaries in their sample had such a policy in place.

And it means making sure staff wellbeing is woven into the school culture. We know from research that when teachers struggle, pupils do too. That’s why workload and working environments are so important. Everyone is affected by them.

But while we shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of developing whole-school approaches, neither should we ignore the incredible progress schools and colleges have made in supporting and promoting mental health, especially in these extraordinary circumstances. A new approach has begun to emerge during the pandemic that puts mental health and wellbeing first, and there should be no reason to go back. Instead, we should build on it.

The evidence tells us that there is nothing more important to adult life satisfaction than good physical and mental health in childhood. It also shows that children want to learn more about mental health.

We also know from ample research that school and college staff are both highly committed and highly stressed.

In an age of tight budgets, following this evidence and adopting whole-school approaches to mental health makes fiscal as well as ethical sense. Supporting staff is also supporting students, and every penny invested in that promises a far greater educational and social return.

The advances of the past few years have been profound. The pandemic has galvanised thinking around the issue. Now, it’s time to make the recovery a launchpad to something better.