10 practical tips for how to make a school a mentally healthier place

Clare Erasmus is the Designated Mental Health Lead Advisor and Head of the Digital Technology & Communication Faculty at Brighton Hill Community School.  She has worked with a range of mental health experts often sitting as an advisor on behalf of schools. Clare has collaborated with staff, students and mental health experts to help create an award winning, bespoke Mental Health and Wellbeing app for her school with PSHE styled podcasts called BHCS My World.

“Take care of your mind and body. They are the only places you have to live in. “[1]  The wise words of 9-year-old, Rosie Erasmus Roberts at a Tedx talk on strengthening family relationships.

We now recognize as a society that just  like we all have  physical health, we also have mental health. After the global pandemic, mental health is more than ever ‘everyone’s business’ so we need to ensure our schools are embracing a culture of mental wellbeing.

Here are my top 10 practical tips on how to make a school a mentally healthier place:

1. Build a culture of mental wellbeing from a whole school vision

Make tackling mental health part of your whole school vision and then feed strategies in making it happen into your school development plan, with targets for both staff and students. This means all staff will play a role in building the culture and you ensure strategically your school is accountable and reports on progress.

2. Be pre-emptive not reactive

Recognise that your school’s role is not to diagnose but to be pre-emptive. School staff should not try to replace child and adolescent mental health services.  Set up lessons/assemblies/insets where your school:

  • Raises awareness of what mental health is and its related illnesses.
  • Students and staff learn about the signs to look out for and both stakeholders know where to get support in school and in the community
  • Creates an inclusive environment that does not discriminate against students and staff facing mental health challenges by writing it into policy

3. Appoint a DMHL and a mental wellbeing team

Appoint a designated mental health and a team of adult wellbeing mentors who all have been trained as mental health first aiders. Ensure the DMHL is properly trained by a DFE accredited mental health training provider. Give the DMHL a budget.

4. Engage student and staff voice

Start at the top, by surveying teachers’ response to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Then create a “You said, we did” response to it. Form a staff wellbeing action group. Find out if students know where, when and who to get support from.  Where do they feel safe or not. What support would they like?”

5. Create Physical spaces in the school to support the culture of mental wellbeing

Create a lunchtime wellbeing zone with different pop up rooms to support different needs. Populate this space with murals, information and signposting, all with a view to welcoming your students. For example: A freedom 2 B space where you embrace diversity; an anti-bullying pop-in room to tackle break down in communications; A Q space (like the quiet carriage on a train) for calm and reflection ; a wellbeing pop-in room; –an invitation-only YC (young carers) The students can self-refer at lunchtime or they can be referred by a staff member. Set up a staff wellbeing room where staff can go for quiet, mindfulness, reflection, time out.

6. Train Peer mentors

Many schools already have a successful peer-mentoring anti-bullying ambassador’s programme, so using the same model, create wellbeing ambassadors. These need to be trained by a MHFA in how they can offer a lunchtime listening service, focusing on empathy and being able to  signpost further support in the school or online. It is imperative they are clear about the safeguarding policy in the school, so they know when to refer to a staff member.

7.  Engage with Tech

Populate your website or create podcasts or build apps so students have all the key information they need on the various topics of mental health; ensure these platforms clearly let them know where they can get support in the school and who they can talk to.

The provision of this digital support, along with lots of physical signs throughout the school, ensures that your students now have easy access to the information they need.

8.  Set up procedures for teacher referral and interventions

Ensure there is clarity in your school on how to make a teacher referral when a staff member spots concerns. Ensure the procedure of making a referral is in sync with the safeguarding policy but build in a step where you triage what type of support the YP needs in the first instance.
Ensure the DMHL (along with the DSL)  is closely tracking all referrals, interventions and of course measuring against a set of outcomes (in my latest book I provide a handy set of outcomes for schools to measure the impact of their interventions by.)

9. Engage parents

Send out a parent survey to find out what they know about mental health and support in your school and what they feel they need as support for their children.

Ensure any child receiving support or an intervention has the parents involved in the discussion too.  Engage the many skills of parents by starting up a parent wellbeing-ambassadors group.

These key stakeholders will also be a key driving force behind the whole-school #familyMH5aday campaign[2].

10. Engage local community and external agencies

There is a lovely African proverb ‘It takes a village to bring up a child.’ Bearing this in mind, reach out to your local council and find out charities and services available to support your young people in your area. There will be a range from family link support workers, young carers groups; young peer mentors, Domestic abuse and Grief support groups and mental health support teams. Each council also has a very helpful website where there will be free webinars, training programs and specialists who can help support you with mild to moderate mental health challenges. Finally keep a tab open for some of the national mental health charities like Young Minds UK, Anna Freud and Heads Together.

[1] Rosie Erasmus Roberts #familyMH5aday Rosie and Claire Erasmus: Strengthening family relationships by really communicating and listening- #familymh5aday | TED Talk

[2] Rosie and Claire Erasmus: Strengthening family relationships by really communicating and listening- #familymh5aday | TED Talk

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