Is there something missing in the Mental Health debate?

The elephant in the classroom

There has been some amazing work done in the increased awareness of mental health for children in the last 5 years. A cursory search on the net will bring up international, national, regional, local and school-based initiatives all aimed at increasing what we should know and what to about mental health issues relating to students. From School Mental Health Advocacy Day on January 29th in the US state of Missouri, to the excellent package from The School Bus @_theschoolbus on supporting mental health in schools there is real momentum in this area.

In “Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: A Green Paper” published in December 2017, the Government crossed the Rubicon on this issue. They now pledged to help schools not only to identify mental health issues but to provide funding for teachers to become mental health leads.

This would incorporate a huge amount of work and potentially in my view try to ride two very different horses. The Mental Health Lead (MHL) would be responsible for the promotion of positive MH AND resilience in both students and staff. This, in reality means a whole school approach to the implementation of MH and wellbeing in the curriculum and policy making. This is a mammoth undertaking for just the students without adding staff and parents into the mix as well. On top of this would be the need for very close links with the SEN staff, unless of course you already were the overburdened SEN staff member in the first place and the huge workload of dealing with external agencies. Keeping staff up to date and on board would naturally be in your remit as well as evaluating outcomes. Although, not a statutory requirement it will be more and more part of the Ofsted framework and thus a necessity. The first 20% of schools will be offered this training from September 2019.

It is not surprising that more and more posts being advertised as Pastoral leads are using the terminology of wellbeing as this is likely to be a huge part of their role. However, I cannot see how this role can possibly be carried out effectively as it is envisaged within current constraints both physical and fiscal. The most pressing need will be for interventions with students and this is both right and something I suspect all teachers would agree on. However, I am not sure that the policy on the ground can possibly be able to encompass the wellbeing and mental health of teachers. A recent article by Helen Ward @teshelen highlighted the issue of the reforms of teacher training that has led to an almost full immersion for new teachers in their new schools with very little or no prior training or experience is another example of the government trying to do the right thing but bungling the end product. These new teachers are now suffering wellbeing and mental health issues due to the lack of training they have received, and this will fall on their hard-pressed colleagues who have no time to cope with them so unsurprisingly they drop out. Not only is this often a personal trauma but due to social media and these individuals’ negative experiences yet more collateral damage for the teaching profession.

Following on from this depressing, but unfortunately realistic assessment was a very good article from the Press Association on the 17th January by John Von Radowitz @JohnvonR which although not saying anything radically new just underlined the issues of workload and what he called excessive managerialism in the education sector. WHAT John clearly highlights, and I think this is at the crux of the whole debate on teachers mental health is an excellent quote from professor Gerry Leavey, Director of the Bamford Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing at the University of Ulster, talking about a survey of 39 teachers his findings amongst others pointed at “a tension between the old view of what it means to be a teacher- commitment, service to the school and the pupils’ learning and the new managerialist view : accountability, performativity, and meeting standards in a new corporate world. Too often, this leads to stress and mental health problems. Too many good teachers are leaving the profession through ill-health.”

And this is in many ways the essence of the issue and one of the main reasons I left teaching after thirty years to help set up Every Voice Counts. There needs to be a step back from just rushing into reforms that may/will help student mental health if they are going to impact on the very people who are implementing them. The straw that broke the camels back is not a saying for no reason. The increased pressure for results, curriculum changes, managerial styles and incessant and sometimes ill-thought out policy changes, however well intentioned are literally bringing the profession to the lowest point in its collective morale I can ever remember. A step back and assessment of the wellbeing of teachers is as important at this stage as any further reforms.