Managing mental health in school – why supervision has to be on our radar
By Lara Péchard, Headteacher at St Margaret’s School in Herts www.stmargaretsbushey.co.uk
Over the last decade, pastoral work in schools has changed significantly and continues to evolve year on year. In the majority of cases, most teachers will have joined the profession without having had any training in mental health at all, nor would they have anticipated a need to possess specialist knowledge in this area. In truth, most teachers will have picked up varying skills in this area simply via on-the- job training.
Schools back in the noughties and earlier, managed pastoral issues in-house with the infrequent use of outsourced experts, which would usually have been managed by the family outside of school. To put this into context this was also a time when schools didn’t get involved in online safety issues. Today many schools will have a network of counsellors and clinical psychologists to draw upon. It is also becoming more common for schools to engage pupils, parents and staff in all kinds of therapy, while often picking up the bill themselves.
With a rising number of mental health concerns affecting the young, support has undoubtedly struggled to keep up and at this stage it is not clear whether it can, or indeed ever should, meet demand. Most schools are of course deeply committed to supporting young people in crisis but the truth is, as a sector we needed to get much better at dealing with mental health issues, especially those impacting young people today. For schools though, the problem is this burden has fallen mostly to them.
Today, parents are choosing schools that are academically strong and can also provide an army of pastoral staff to deal with all eventualities. Good schools will train up their staff investing in strong options such as Mental Health First Aid or any MIND course. Using experienced colleagues to provide regular updates on how to deal with eating disorders, self-harm and suicide prevention and drip-feeding these across the year can also boost the confidence of a teaching team. Using anonymised real-life case studies and having time to chat these through is stellar and affordable training, which can help bring on even the least confident.
An effective welfare officer will help to siphon off the acute cases and will naturally provide staff much needed support. Importantly, pastoral staff need time to manage and reflect on the difficult issues that come across their desk and this is where supervision comes in. Supervision is a type of professional counselling where teachers and staff talk through cases and their experience of them with a qualified mental health professional.
Supervision has to be on every school’s radar, it is costly in time and money but we owe it to our frontline to look after them. Through supervision heads will also have an important outlet and with it they will improve in setting the right emotional tone and language for their school. The likelihood is, in two decades from now, schools will be amazed that supervision wasn’t automatically part of the package for those with the privilege of supporting young people with mental health concerns. As a sector we should have faith in this kind of investment as it will deliver great reward.