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Mental Health in Schools

How to teach mental health to students

Part of Our Teacher Training and Wellbeing Series

Conversations about mental health have been on the rise in schools for some years now, and with good reason. The number of young people being referred to mental health services was already growing steadily before the pandemic hit, and it’s showing no sign of slowing down now the world is seemingly ‘back to normal.’

In fact, the BBC reported last year that there has been a 77% increase in the number of children and young people needing specialist treatment for severe mental health crises. The Children’s Commissioner’s March 2023 report sheds more light on this, reporting that 1 in 5 children said that they were unhappy with their mental health.

QWhat is mental health?

Mental health refers to the state of a person's psychological, emotional, and social well-being. It encompasses a range of factors, including an individual's ability to manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, cope with stress and adversity, maintain healthy relationships, and have a sense of purpose and meaning in life.

QWhat is wellbeing?

Wellbeing refers to the state of an individual's physical, mental, and emotional health, which encompasses maintaining positive relationships, engaging in meaningful activities, and managing stress. It involves physical health, emotional regulation, social connection, and mental resilience. Overall, wellbeing is a holistic concept that can be enhanced by prioritising self-care and engaging in activities that promote health and happiness.

QWhat do we mean by RSE?

"RSE" is an acronym that stands for "Relationships and Sex Education". It refers to a type of education that is provided in schools by the government, which covers topics such as healthy relationships, consent, sexual health, and sexuality. The purpose of RSE is to ensure that young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to develop positive and respectful relationships, make informed decisions about their own health and wellbeing, and navigate the complexities of the modern world.

Getting the conversation going -

a look back in time

As someone who grew up in the nineties and early 2000s, my education on mental health and wellbeing was fairly limited. Witnessing my best friend experience mental health challenges during our teenage years deeply impacted me. This inspired me to complete a course in children's counseling with Place2Be before becoming a primary school teacher, as I understood firsthand the significance of nurturing mental health and wellbeing in young people.

“Time to Talk Day was launched in 2014 by Time to Change, it was a campaign to get the conversation going and to end mental health stigma and discrimination, which was run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.”

Let’s fast forward to February 2016, it’s ‘Time to Talk’ day. Not yet a qualified teacher, I've brought cakes, games, and conversation starters to the office to promote mental health awareness. Although some colleagues were initially hesitant, my efforts ultimately led to a productive conversation, however, I’ll never forget the slight air of confusion and the reluctance to approach such topics, something as curious and obscure as veganism or climate change, perhaps.

Skip ahead to February 2017, I’m completing my Primary PGCE (postgraduate certificate in education) and I want to do a lesson about mental health. I'm met with positivity, yet that similar air of confusion … the ‘if you have mental health it means you’re crazy’ kind of vibe.

By the time I had entered the classroom as a newly qualified teacher in February 2018, I was so overcome with the quantity of work, I didn’t even remember that it was ‘Time to Talk’ day. As most newly qualified teachers know, in that first year, you’re barely able to look after your own mental health, nevermind that of the 30 pupils you’re in charge of.

It wasn’t until February 2019 that we started to see a change when the government introduced ‘Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education’ to schools. But, are 'wellbeing' and 'mindfulness' becoming meaningless buzzwords with a lack of connection to the true intent behind a holistic approach to learning?

What does the RSE curriculum say about mental health?

QBy the end of Primary School, the RSE curriculum states that all children should know:
  • that mental wellbeing is a normal part of daily life, in the same way as physical health

  • that there is a normal range of emotions (e.g. happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, nervousness) and scale of emotions that all humans experience in relation to different experiences and situations

  • how to recognise and talk about their emotions, including having a varied vocabulary of words to use when talking about their own and others’ feelings

  • how to judge whether what they are feeling and how they are behaving is appropriate and proportionate

  • the benefits of physical exercise, time outdoors, community participation, voluntary and service-based activity on mental wellbeing and happiness

  • simple self-care techniques, including the importance of rest, time spent with friends and family and the benefits of hobbies and interests

  • isolation and loneliness can affect children and that it is very important for children to discuss their feelings with an adult and seek support

  • that bullying (including cyberbullying) has a negative and often lasting impact on mental wellbeing

  • where and how to seek support (including recognising the triggers for seeking support), including whom in school they should speak to if they are worried about their own or someone else’s mental wellbeing or ability to control their emotions (including issues arising online). It is common for people to experience mental ill health. For many people who do, the problems can be resolved if the right support is made available, especially if accessed early enough

QBy the end of Secondary School, the RSE curriculum states that all students should know:
  • how to talk about their emotions accurately and sensitively, using appropriate vocabulary

  • that happiness is linked to being connected to others

  • how to recognise the early signs of mental wellbeing concerns

  • common types of mental ill health (e.g. anxiety and depression)

  • how to critically evaluate when something they do or are involved in has a positive or negative effect on their own or others’ mental health

  • the benefits and importance of physical exercise, time outdoors, community participation and voluntary and service-based activities on mental wellbeing and happiness

From statutory guidance - Physical health and mental wellbeing (Primary and secondary)

Mental health in schools - the present day  

Teaching mental health in schools is increasingly recognised as crucial in England, outlined in the government document 'Keeping Children Safe in Education'. Despite the challenges, such as teachers' existing workload, schools have a duty to promote students' mental health and wellbeing. To address this, the government plans to have senior mental health leads in all schools by 2025 to oversee support provision and reduce the strain on teachers.

Recent discussions about mental health support in schools have been influenced by a report from a coalition of UK schools, including notable institutions like Eton College and Star Academies. This coalition, formed during the Covid-19 pandemic, highlights the need for national waiting time standards for child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs). They stress that while a positive school culture and social-emotional learning are important, these alone are not sufficient. An effective approach must combine these with structured educational components in personal, social, and health education​​. How can you teach it in the meantime?

1. Create a safe and inclusive environment:

It is essential to create an inclusive classroom environment where all students feel comfortable discussing mental health. Make sure you establish clear boundaries and expectations, so students feel safe and secure. Weekly debate topics provided by VotesforSchools can help your pupils be in the habit of open discussions around topics like young carers, misogyny and LGBTQ+ representation in the media.

2. Start with the basics:

Start by discussing what mental health is and why it's important. This will lay the foundation for more in-depth discussions. Expect to hear words like ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’ and ‘lunatic’ and be prepared to discuss the meaning and impact of these words. Be mindful of the fact that some of your pupils will know very little about mental health and others will have lived experience with either themselves or family members. Netflix now has trigger warnings for certain topics, for example. These issues can bring up difficult memories or emotions in your students. Be prepared and approach them with sensitivity.

3. Use age-appropriate language:

Use age-appropriate language when discussing mental health with younger students. This will help them understand the concepts better and feel less intimidated. In Primary schools, it’s good to focus on the changes we see in our bodies that can be connected to our thoughts and feelings. For example, when our heart beats very quickly after playing outside, our heart can also beat very quickly when we’re feeling worried or scared.

4. Use interactive teaching methods:

Engage students with interactive teaching methods, such as role-playing, group discussions, or creative activities, to keep the topic interesting and relevant. Be clever about this, in particular with secondary aged children, give your pupils a voice. Don’t just arrive with an activity and expect that you’ll incite conversation around deep topics. Consider a suggestion box for your students to place anonymous tips for topics they would like to discuss. A carousel activity could be helpful, with different areas of the classroom set up to approach different aspects of mental health, giving your students the freedom to explore topics independently first

5. Encourage self-care practices:

Encourage self-care practices such as exercise, meditation, and healthy eating habits, which are essential for maintaining good mental health. But remember - this isn’t a quick fix and needs to be one aspect of a wider mental health curriculum.

6.Teach coping strategies:

Teach students different coping strategies that can help them manage stress and anxiety. Such as the self-care practices above or another effective approach is to teach children problem-solving skills, such as breaking down complex problems into smaller, more manageable steps. This can help students feel more empowered and capable of dealing with difficult situations, rather than becoming overwhelmed or helpless.

7. Normalise seeking help:

Normalise seeking help by discussing the importance of seeking support from trusted adults, like parents, teachers, learning mentors or counsellors. However, be prepared to be met with resistance. The online counselling service ‘Better Help’ says that when searching for a therapist, it is important to take into account your cultural background and specific concerns. If we understand that adults need somebody to talk to who is suited to their needs, we must do our best to ensure there are a variety of different role models in schools to suit the needs of our pupils.

8. Address stigma:

Address the stigma around mental health issues, and encourage students to be empathetic and supportive towards their peers who may be struggling. Keep all conversations open and non judgemental. If a child comes to you for help, offer empathy and understanding rather than solutions. Our lessons on boundaries and consent could be a good starting point to approach such topics.

9. Provide resources:

Provide students with access to resources, such as hotlines, websites, and support groups, that can help them or their loved ones access help when needed. With each tricky topic that we cover at VotesforSchools, we create a Home Information Sheet for young people with all the information they need to get support if they’ve been affected by an issue. Just like adults, young people need time to consider what they have learned and how they want to act on it, so providing take-away resources such as these sheets means they’ve got the info on hand if they need it.

10. Take care of yourself:


Teaching mental health can be emotionally challenging, so make sure you take care of yourself by practising self-care and seeking support when needed. Afterall, you cannot take care of other people if you are not well yourself. These 10 tips on tackling teacher burnout are a great starting point to helping your own mental health and wellbeing and remember to use whatever help is available for you!

Looking for lessons on mental health?

VotesforSchools lessons cover a wide range of topics within the RSE curriculum, such as dealing with loss & bereavement, the effect of the internet on sex & relationships and how burnout can affect young people. As well as teaching young people about these issues, we ask for their feedback and ensure that their voices are heard by organisations across the world. You can find out more about the programme here, and trial some of our lessons for use in your school.

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Former primary school teacher and current Marketing Executive at VotesforSchools. Rachael has spent years educating herself on the topic of children's mental health. Both her training and lived experiences have made her extremely passionate about helping teachers approach the issue of mental health in schools.

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