The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Evie Prysor-Jones

Children's mental health: an exciting challenge for schools

Last Wednesday (12th November) we had the pleasure of hosting the Promoting Positive Mental Health in Schools conference in partnership with Place2Be, and what a day it was! Taking place at the Ibis Hotel in West Brompton, it was a relentlessly busy day, packed full of information and professional expertise on the ever-relevant topic of mental health.IMG_0305 Despite the adverse travelling conditions (a double dose of traditional British weather and a host of problems on the Underground) we had a great turnout – people arrived promptly and seemed eager to get into their first session of the day. After helping ourselves to refreshments and exploring the various stands on the bustling conference floor, we were called into the main hall and the conference began.

The state of mental health in schools

Lysanne Wilson (Director of Operations for YoungMinds and conference Chair) welcomed us all to the conference and neatly summarised the focus of the day. She told us that we are facing an 'exciting but challenging time for children's mental health', and that schools have a duty to promote emotional health and resilience in their pupils. The first keynote was delivered by Lindsey Shaffer, a leading CAMHS practitioner, who gave us a rundown of the recent research findings. The figures were startling: one in 10 children suffering from a diagnosable mental health disorder, and a doubling in the number of depressed schoolchildren since the 1980s. She reiterated that schools are well-placed to spot warning signs and deal with cases of child mental disorder, but there must first be a solid school structure in place. Teachers should be vigilant in spotting children who ‘internalise’ their problems, as they can be difficult to spot. Next up was Dr Nick Barnes, an NHS practitioner, who gave us plenty of food for thought in his presentation – to the point where he was in danger of running over! He stressed the importance of relationships and creating a whole-school approach to tackling pupil mental health disorders when CAMHS is unavailable. He also shared with us some initiatives he was involved in, including a football scheme aimed at developing social communication for young people.

Pupil self-harm

The hall fell silent for Dr Fiona Pienaar’s (Place2Be) keynote on self-harm. As we were shown some shocking images of self-harm, she emphasised the importance of teacher confidence in dealing with what are often very distressing cases. As a mere 12.4% of children seek medical assistance after an incident, self-harm can pose an immediate medical threat as well as a psychological risk. Dr Pooky Knightsmith continued the theme of self-harm in the first session of the day, covering the reasons why young people resort to self-harm and offering practical advice on how to deal with it effectively. Some pupils may require a therapist for a more targeted form of treatment, but schools can often take ‘practical’ action to deal with mental health issues.

Research and staff trainingIMG_0312

Halfway through the day, I got the opportunity to sit in on a focus group session with two school leaders. Thanks to their cooperation and willingness to take time out of their schedule, we gained some great information. Their feedback will help us to target specific concerns and challenges that teachers face in the area of pupil mental health. Mick Atkinson, Vice Chair of the Children and Young Pupils’ Mental Health Coalition, kicked off the second half of the day with his keynote on current research in mental health, and its application to schools. Afterwards I sat in on the ‘Improving Staff Emotional Intelligence’ training session hosted by David Exall of Place2Be, and he really got his audience engaged! After some light group work, he outlined ways of supporting colleagues and suggested some self-help activities to maintain your own mindset.

Mental health and the Web

To round off the day, I went along to another session from Pooky – this time about online behaviour and cyberbullying. She warned teachers to be aware of ‘Pro-’ websites: places that actively encourage mental health and eating disorders; they can be especially dangerous for young people as they often operate under the guise of harmless online communities. As for the issue of young people having easy access to pornography, she recommended Bish Training as a teaching resource for pupils to learn about healthy sexual behaviour. And so the day drew to a close! It was practical, informative and very tiring! There was such a breadth of information on offer, and only so many hours in the day, that each attendee will have taken away something different. Here are some of the key points I took away from the day:

  1. Schools provide a unique environment for spotting and dealing with mental health issues in pupils.
  2. In the absence of CAMHS, schools must be resourceful and knowledgeable when dealing with pupil mental health issues.
  3. A working knowledge of specific mental health disorders, including knowing how to react and combat them, is essential for teachers.
  4. Teacher wellbeing is concurrent with pupil wellbeing! Teachers need to ensure their own good health, so they can do well by their pupils.


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