HeadStart and Schools: why integrating emotional well-being and mental health education into schools is so important

The HeadStart Wolverhampton programme has multiple strands designed to ensure that a range of engagement and support activities are available to young people, their parents/carers and families, and that their communities are supported to be more resilient, take ownership and be empowered to make decisions and drive HeadStart in a co-production model. Many of these activities will be community based and delivered by a range of voluntary, community and independent groups, and indeed around £3m of the HeadStart Wolverhampton funding will be spent this way. However, schools are also critical to HeadStart and I wanted to use this blog to consider the role of schools to support the mental health of young people. 

Schools are the place where most young people spend most of their day – for 38 weeks of the year anyway. Friendships and relationships form at school. Young people align themselves with peer groups that closely match their ‘type’ – fashion, music, sport, gamers, etc. They might also get into conflict with people from other peer groups, in the worst cases they might suffer teasing, be singled out and bullied. Young people form relationships and bonds with teachers and other adults, and make judgements about their favourite teachers which will stay with them for life. All of these relationships and interactions will help them form judgements about others and about how the world sees them. Teens will often find their self-worth at school. 

Schools help young people to learn how to live within a community and a society. Its rules, structure, expectations and opportunities increase as they get older. Every young person has to do tests and examinations. Stress is inevitable. As too is failure. 

Schools are also commonly the place where mental health issues can become obvious, and exacerbated, and many schools admit to being ill-equipped to respond appropriately. 

The April 2017 publication of the Students’ Well-Being: PISA Results 2015 provides a window into understanding the role of schools and how happy and satisfied young people are with different aspects of their life, how connected to others they feel, and the aspirations they have for their future. The findings are based on a questionnaire of 540,000 students in 72 countries and highlight the importance teachers play in creating the conditions for students’ well-being at school. Happier students tend to report positive relations with their teachers. Students in schools where life satisfaction is above the national average reported a higher level of support from their teacher than students in schools where life satisfaction is below average.

The importance of whole-school wellbeing is highlighted by the findings and strategies include effective anti-bullying programmes that include training for teachers on bullying behaviour and how to handle it. A large proportion of young people surveyed reporting being victims and bullying is lower in schools where students have positive relationships with their teachers. 

A summary of the findings can be found here :https://www.oecd.org/education/most-teenagers-happy-with-their-lives-but-schoolwork-anxiety-and-bullying-an-issue.htm

So, the role of schools is critical, and education is essential.

Educating children and young people about mental health, and educating and equipping teachers and support staff to better understand and support mental health, its symptoms and its associated manifestations. 

Schools should place the same emphasis on the education of mental health as on physical health education. Many mental health experts believe the mental health and wellbeing and resilience of young people should be as important to schools, and to Ofsted, as their academic achievement and that schools should be judged by their ability to turn out young people who are confident, aspirational, not afraid of failure, able to form positive relationships and equipped with other resilient traits. 

What is certain is that we have to change the culture around mental health. 

It starts with young people.