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

Laura Nuttall

Mental health: don’t let your pupils ‘get by’ unsupported

As someone who received support from my school counsellor and teachers, I still struggled with my mental health illness. How do pupils who don't have access to adequate support cope? They don't.

Many years ago, I was an 8-year-old in a primary school classroom desperately trying not to cry whilst the teacher was speaking. When break time rolled around, the tears flowed and I found myself unable to self-soothe.

My parents had just announced that they were getting a divorce and I was experiencing an unfamiliar, extremely dark, sadness.

My teacher called me over and asked why I had been crying so much over the last few days. I muttered out a brief explanation and her response was:

‘You need to find somebody to talk to’.

Not, ‘Shall I help you find somebody to talk to?’ or ‘I suggest you talk to X, Y or Z’ but you, a mere 8-year-old who knows little other than you're unhappy at home and this school, needs to find somebody to talk to.

Is a child who is struggling with their mental health really going to achieve their potential in school?

Granted, the problems I was facing at that time were not a mental health problem; I was experiencing understandable sadness considering the turmoil I was facing. I do feel, however, that this example can highlight how alone many unhappy children might feel.

Furthermore, whilst many people might argue that educational establishments should be focusing on purely educating children, it is important to remember that school is often the only brief escape children have from their problems.

This is why it is important for schools to do what they can to help pupils who are experiencing distress. After all, is a child who is struggling with their mental health really going to achieve their potential in school?!

Counsellors in schools

By the time I entered secondary school, I was struggling with the undiagnosed mental illnesses that would lead to me being admitted to a psychiatric unit for two years, from the age of 16.

Whilst the years prior to my admission to hospital were the hardest I have ever experienced, I was lucky enough to receive great support from my school.

When my support system at school became too concerned about me, they were well within their rights to break confidentiality and seek more specialist professional help

Having struggled so much whilst receiving support leaves me incredibly concerned and saddened at the thought of the millions of children out there who are trying to ‘get by’ totally unsupported; I certainly don’t think I could have done it.

We had a counsellor at my school whom I attended weekly meetings with. Additionally, I was able to seek her out and talk at any point if I was feeling overwhelmed.

My problems were still undiagnosed and my contact with her was initiated purely by a teacher of mine who had become concerned about how unhappy I seemed.

I was extremely fortunate.

When my support system at school became too concerned about me, they were well within their rights to break confidentiality and seek more specialist professional help. I dread to think what could have happened and I strongly feel that this action alone could save the lives of desperate pupils who are at risk of hurting themselves or ending their lives.

Educating pupils about mental health

When I started to become unwell, I had no idea what was happening. I was unable to understand why I was so desperately unhappy and why I sometimes experienced sensory information that others seemingly did not.

I strongly feel that, this alone, is one of the main reasons why I did not seek help or open up about what I was experiencing.

While many important health issues had been, and were still being, taught in specific lessons dedicated to health, I had no idea what mental illness was. I had only ever seen the drooling, screaming people in restraints being kept safely away from the general public by metal bars in rubbish horror films.

Recently, there has been a massive improvement in the accurate portrayal of mental illness and more and more people are talking about it.

Similarly, many schools are now taking note and also teaching their pupils about mental health (what it is, how it can be maintained, what mental illnesses are etc.).

I strongly feel that all schools should do this. In fact, I think ‘mental health’ should be incorporated into the national curriculum.

Helping peers to show understanding, empathy and support

This could help pupils identify when they, or someone they know, is showing signs of becoming unwell, allowing help to be sought faster (recovery from mental illnesses tends to be more successful the sooner interventions are implemented).

Furthermore, if Joe Blogg’s Dad has cancer and his friends understand the serious nature of his Dad’s illness and provide Joe with the social support he needs, surely Joanne Bloggs, whose Dad has schizophrenia, should be able to expect, and deserves, the same level of understanding, empathy and support.

Mental illnesses do appear to be becoming more prevalent in school-aged children and I strongly feel that providing support to children who are struggling and educating all children about mental health and mental illnesses in schools can only provide positive results.

After all, on average, 1 in 4 of us will be personally affected by mental illness in our lifetime. By increasing support for children now, perhaps the next generation will be much more knowledgeable, empathetic and ‘mentally healthy’ than those before it.

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