A sad fact of modern life is the sometimes crushing pressure felt by children and young people as they try to make sense of the world and the communities in which they live. Whether things really are worse for young people now, or whether we’re simply better at identifying emotional distress and mental ill health remains a point for debate, there can be no denying that there’s a problem and that as teachers we need to be clued up on what to look out for.
We know surprisingly little about children’s mental health at present. The 2016 survey of child mental health will tell us more (it is the first of its kind since 2004), but until then we have outdated statistics and conservative estimates. For example, around three children in every class suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. Over 8,000 children under the age of ten suffer from severe depression.
So, what can we do to make sure children don’t slip through the net? Recognising the signs to look out for is a great start.
Despite some discussions on social media questioning whether child mental health is deteriorating, all teachers need to be aware of the children in their care. We aren’t in the classroom simply to teach a subject or subjects. We also have to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils in our care, and that means being vigilant about the way children present in our classrooms. What changes do we notice in behaviour and the way they interact with friends and peers? How about appearance and general mood? If children are uncharacteristically introverted or irritable, take that as a sign that all isn’t well. Rapid changes in weight can be worrying signs too.
Take words seriously
All suicidal ideation needs to be taken very seriously. If a child expresses an interest in suicide (and children as young as five may express this), you must talk to the child’s pastoral head as soon as possible. In fact, any talk of self-harm of any description must be taken seriously and support put in place.
Focus on bullying
While we don’t know exact figures, it is thought that being a victim of bullying is a major contributory factor in poor mental health. If bullying, even of the relatively mild variety (such as “banter” or teasing) is tolerated in your school, it is likely that the mental health of victims will be adversely affected. Stamp it out as soon as you can and offer children safe opportunities for them to talk about any bullying they are experiencing without fear of recrimination. School-based bullying has to be eradicated.
If you are in any doubt about changes or behaviour you’re witnessing in one of your pupils, always seek advice. Your line manager is the best place to start, or if your school has someone assigned to promoting wellbeing in pupils, speak to him or her. There are also excellent sources of online support (see below).
Sources of advice
The Young Minds website is a great source of advice and information for young people, parents and teachers.
The Centre for Child Mental Health website carries information on training for teachers.
The Mental Health Foundation has plenty of useful information for teachers.
The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition brings together leading charities for campaign purposes.
The University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) has very recently launched a series of short animations to help young people at university deal with mental distress, although the films would be useful for young people at other stages of education too. There are films for students and for tutors, including this one describing what happens during a panic attack, explaining why students get them and the actions they can take.
Do you have any advice on spotting the signs of mental ill health or dealing with situations from your teaching experience? Share your thoughts below!