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Opinion11th May 2022

‘We need to educate children about mental health now, or it will affect their future’

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Week (9-15th May), we spoke with two school leaders to learn how they supported their school community’s mental health and wellbeing needs during the pandemic. This blog is the latest in our #ArkPeople series.

It’s been two years since we launched our COVID-19 Appeal to help schools deal with the turbulence caused by the pandemic, and we focused on three key areas.

  1. Preventing digital exclusion
  2. Improving mental health
  3. Closing the attainment gap

We committed funding to increase mental health provision in schools to help them cope with the dramatic decline in student mental health due to the pandemic. The 2020-21 academic year saw a 77% increase in students who presented mental health concerns. That meant one in ten students needed support. However, with funding, we are proud of our achievements as we:

Ark Swift connects with children’s mental health charity

At Ark Swift Primary Academy in West London, they invested their funding in a mental health service. Daniel Upfield, Headteacher at the school, explains the impact this had on the school community.

“We wanted a broad offer so all our children could understand that mental health is as important as their physical health. We invested in 2.5 days of support per week from Place 2 Be because we’d seen such an increase in the mental health needs of our students.

“The support provided was varied and enabled students, parents and teachers to talk to a specialist counsellor or participate in a group session. Twenty-four children chose to self-refer to Place 2 Talk in the summer term. It’s an open access service for any child to request an opportunity to talk to someone. All they have to do is fill in a slip. It means they know that talking is a good way to deal with things. They don’t need to get angry or aggressive.

“Those with more severe needs were referred to Place 2 Be’s specialist counselling service, working through various issues, such as grief, parental separations, older siblings being groomed for county lines, anxiety about friendships, and the transition to secondary school thoughts about self-harm.

“The support made a huge difference to the smooth running of the school. It means we don’t feel so stretched as a staff team. We saw reduced levels of anxiety, increased confidence, better peer relationships and better relationships within the home. One parent fed back, saying, ‘You have really supported me through all of this; I don’t know what I would have done without your support.’ That shows the level of impact it’s had.”

Getting therapeutic family support at Ark Tindal

Out of nearly 33,000 wards in England, Ark Tindal Primary Academy in Birmingham is in the most deprived 50. Ammal Mockbil, Ark Tindal’s Mental Health First Aider and Safeguarding Lead, reflects on what this meant for the students’ mental health during the pandemic.

“During the lockdown, we found many of our children who had suffered trauma started to experience financial hardship or were being placed in twenty different hotels because we have a considerable housing shortage in Birmingham. Parents were also losing jobs, so they were relying on food banks.

“Levels of anxiety and mental distress have increased. Children as young as five were suffering from anxiety. They couldn’t understand why their grandparents were passing away. We also had one parent pass away during the pandemic. There was a mysterious virus they couldn’t understand, and suddenly they were losing loved ones.

“The mental health needs of the school’s community became too much to manage for the small pastoral team. We want the children to be able to sit down at their desks and do their literacy and numeracy work, but they can’t if they’ve got so much going on in their heads.

“Using the funding, we offered a specialist counselling service to children, teachers and parents. The charity partner, Malachi, provides counselling at the school for one day per week, supporting six people at a time.

“There have been some real breakthroughs through the counselling provided. One of our children would regularly storm out of class. He would get very angry. After 12 weeks of counselling with Malachi, he’s an entirely different child in school. Instead of getting mad, he will ask his teacher if he can speak to someone in the pastoral team.

“The child found a positive role model in his counsellor, an Asian male. He managed to change this child’s perception of expressing his emotions. He learned it’s ok to express how you feel. It’s ok to sit down and talk to somebody.

“When a staff member passed away last year, the school was provided with free counselling the next day. Parents have also attended counselling sessions, which I believe has had a positive impact on our children as well. The service has opened up the school community to the value of talking and being listened to.

“I see educating children about managing their emotions as a part of the school’s mission. We need to educate them about mental health because that’s one way they’ll be able to support themselves, not just through school but at home and in later years. We need to get it right now – or it will affect their future.”

Earlier this year, we saw the remaining government requirements lifted, and although most of school life has now returned to normal; schools have not yet seen a reduction in the mental health needs of students. We will continue to prioritise investment in mental health provision to have a lasting impact on our young people’s lives.