If we want to address the issue of mental health, we need to consider all aspects of school life from data to relationships, from assessment to pastoral care and from attainment to behaviour.
We need to start looking at schools as more like a living organism than an electrical circuit meaning we can’t look at one area in isolation, everything within it is inter-linked. Mental health does not exist in a discrete area of a school and it can’t be one person’s responsibility.
Mental health campaigners have raised concerns about a tendency to over-medicalise mental health issues however, there are a range of measures that schools can take to prevent or reduce the chances of pupils developing mental health issues. Creating and maintaining ‘cohesive and connected’ communities is central.
I’ve worked with many schools over the last year in relation to creating community cohesion and five priorities were identified:
- Tackling prejudice, promoting diversity and removing the stigma around mental health. This area requires constant attention and vigilance.
- Creating effective and inclusive behaviour systems that ensure that pupils feel safe and secure and that exclusion practices are minimised.
- Having impactful pupil voice opportunities (fora, surveys, etc.) and not just box-ticking systems, so that pupils’ views and concerns (e.g. exam stresses and pressures) are genuinely taken into account and addressed.
- Parental/carer engagement. Having strong connections between schools and families, including extensive outreach to struggling families.
- A culture of restorative justice in which problems are resolved via dialogue, empathy and understanding.
All of the above are based on an acceptance that the maintenance of ‘positive relationships’ between all people is key. But even within a ‘cohesive and connected community’, pupils will still have mental health issues.
Here are five mental health priorities, once again, identified by schools I’ve been working with within the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) national network:
- Create opportunities for parents/carers to engage in promoting pupils’ well-being and mental health.
- Have impactful systems and processes to support staff well-being and tackle work-related stress. Studies show that staff well-being has a direct impact on pupil well-being.
- Create a programme of on-going whole-staff mental health training, including more specialised training for relevant staff.
- Have a coordinated curriculum and pastoral planning to ensure that pupils have a clear understanding of mental issues.
- Look at pupil well-being programmes (e.g. understanding how our brains work, mindfulness, yoga, etc.). Pupils need strategies and practices to help deal with stress and anxiety.
Alongside these elements you need the glue to hold them all together. In my experience, all interventions and systems work best when founded upon a culture of compassion.
Compassion is often misunderstood. So, let’s begin by saying what it isn’t. It isn’t about being ‘weak’, ‘nice’ or ‘self-indulgent’; we are not helping pupils to develop, flourish and become resilient people by adopting such an approach.
Gilbert & Choden define compassion as ‘being sensitive to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to prevent and relieve it’ (Gilbert & Choden, 2013:XXV). We want our schools to be healthy places: to support this end, we need all people (staff and pupils) to be sensitive to their own suffering and to that of others. By suffering, I refer to the kind of mental health difficulties - stress, anxiety, depression, burn-out – that both pupils and staff increasingly experience in schools.
Being sensitive to such suffering involves considering the emotional impact of our behaviours, actions and decisions across school-life. Further, if we are not sensitive to the suffering of self, then this might inhibit our capacity to empathise with others and might lead to a deterioration in our own health and ability to do our job properly.
Finally, what we do should not only involve thinking about pupils’ needs today (‘relieving’ suffering) but also what they need for the future (‘preventing’ future suffering).
For compassion to work, it is crucial to understand its true nature and flow, and to apply it wisely. Remember, a school is a living organism - compassion is its life blood.
Ammar Al-Ghabban has worked in inner-city schools across London for over twenty years. He began his career as an English teacher in secondary schools. He was an examiner and teacher trainer. He was the Interim Head Teacher of a secondary special school for students with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs in Peckham, London.
Currently, he is supporting schools across the country in the areas of social, emotional and mental health (SEMH), inclusion and behaviour/relationships. This year, he has been developing SEMH strategy across the Academies Enterprise Trust which has over 60 primary, special and secondary academies.
He has published articles on the intersection of young people, media and notions of security. More recently, has written papers on mental health and compassion in schools.
Contact Ammar via email: Ammaralghabban1@gmail.com
Follow Ammar on Twitter: @ammaralghabban1