Peace of mind

From Leader 2019 Summer Term issue

Every day we hear how our mental health and wellbeing, and especially that of our children, is deteriorating. So, what can we do in our schools and colleges to help? And how should we be responding as leaders? Young people’s mental health advocate Pat Sowa, a former school leader, shares top tips.

The latest NHS data shows one in eight young people have a mental health condition (NHS Digital 2017) with cases of self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety and depression increasing. Teachers are not immune to mental ill-health either, and with one in four of the adult population likely to be affected at any one time, there is a need for schools and colleges to address this.

Additionally, over 200 school-aged children died by suicide in 2017 and there was a 25% increase in the 2018 figures (ONS). Most leaders do not need convincing that ‘something needs to be done’, although there are inevitably differing views on exactly what.

As educators we ought to keep our minds open to new information. This is important because knowledge in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, therapy and neuroscience is expanding rapidly. And it is partly this new body of knowledge that is driving the realisation that wellbeing is something that we can influence rather than being ‘out of our hands’.

What can schools and colleges do?

Although it might be tempting to resist the role when we have so many calls on our resources, schools and colleges are in a unique position in society to make a difference.

We teach students to cross the road, we teach them algebra, so we should be able to teach them about themselves too. This is not a tug of war between mental health and achievement. We need to get both right if we are to enable all children to achieve their potential.

How can we go about it?
Any change, large or small, requires the answers to the following three core questions:

  1. Where are we now?Ask yourself questions such as: Does your school or college talk about mental health and wellbeing? Are there posters on the wall that signpost young people to help? Is there access to counselling? Do you have an effective relationship with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)? Have you had a wellbeing audit or asked young people what they think? The diagram, (right) should help you identify where your school or college currently is:
  2. Where do we want to be?Once you know where your school or college currently sits, the model can also help you to think about whether a reactive, preventative or proactive approach reflects the appropriate level of ambition for you.This process is important because it lies at the heart of engaging the whole school community in a conversation about what they want to achieve. It is important to involve parents and governors as well as staff and pupils in defining what wellbeing and a mentally healthy school or college looks like in your context. This will give you the material to create a vision and define the outcomes you will use to measure success. 
  3. How do we get there?To create meaningful change, there needs to be a ‘root and branch’ approach. At its heart, a mentally healthy school or college is one that puts ‘people first’, underpinned by mutual respect and humanity. It is not just about training and access to counsellors; it is about aiming to create a sense of wellbeing that permeates the behaviour of adults and young people at every level, from recruitment, to how people talk to one another in the corridor. A twin-track approach that aims to support staff wellbeing as well as that of pupils is most likely to succeed.

Start with you
Addressing how to achieve this vision starts at the top, with you as leader, because that is where the culture and attitudes that lie behind ‘how we do things around here’ springs from.

When and where you grew up, what school or college you went to and a whole host of other life events, environmental factors and genetics will determine your current perspectives on mental health. 

Have you been lucky enough to have relatively minor mental health issues or are you someone who has had more experience, either personally or with someone you love and/or care for? This matters because the stigma around mental health has only recently started to be tackled, so you may hold prejudices without realising. Recognising that we probably all have some way to go in shifting our attitudes in the face of new knowledge is a good place to start.

Many of you will be leading establishments that have great relationships between students and staff (which is at the heart of wellbeing) and you may have already started on a journey to a mentally healthy school or college, but there is always more you can do: 

  1. Reframing core policies such as safeguarding and behaviour is key to making sure there is a coherent approach.
  2. Building expertise in the skills and knowledge in the subject of mental health is critical. This can then feed into the curriculum, passing on the knowledge to young people. 
  3. Ensuring a consistent approach across all parts of the school or college community optimises the effectiveness and outcomes.  
  4. Some leaders express concern that adding wellbeing and mentally healthy school or college initiatives will take the focus away from academic studies or result in a deluge of needs that cannot be met. However, although it may seem counter-intuitive, improving awareness, skills and knowledge about mental health increases the ability of individuals (both students and staff) to take responsibility for their own mental health. This preventive approach then reduces the level of need, improves chances of recovery and creates a healthy school or college. Success measures might include reduced absence, improved behaviour, self-awareness and improved feedback on key questions in a wellbeing survey.

Preventing tragedy
Although schools and colleges are generally heading in the right direction when addressing mental health and wellbeing, when it comes to suicide safety this is only being addressed by the most proactive ones, and often only after facing a tragedy. 

It can be tempting to avoid this sensitive topic but, when the single biggest killer of young people is still on the rise, we cannot ignore it. Ensure that your school or college has relevant training and resources in place to support you in suicide intervention.

Being proactive on mental health and wellbeing means you can prepare young people with the skills needed to thrive and succeed both academically and personally. And, by integrating this into school culture, it means your school or college is a great place to work and learn. 


  • Responds to events
  • Protects reputation
  • Supports families/pupils/staff appropriately after event
  • Safeguarding/CP style policy: signposting to NHS/Camhs/counselling
  • Primarily relies on external resources for support
  • Medical ‘bolt on’ model


  • Builds skills/awareness in staff, pupils & parents/carers to increase self-management & early intervention
  • Internal culture encourages conversation/reduction of stigma/visible wellbeing culture
  • Enhances reputation
  • Internal & external resources to support(upskilling & specialist)
  • Primarily through pastoral, Year heads & relationship management/ counselling
  • Mental Health Aware/Suicide Aware
  • Mental Health first aid training


  •  Actively leading practice
  • Integrates wellbeing into school culture
  • Involvement of pupils/staff/parents in programme across curriculum & co-curricula activities
  • Highly visible within schools & culture – leading initiatives in community e.g. conferences, training, speakers, mentally healthy School Award, Suicide Safer Schools
  •  Integrated into curriculum & transitions/assemblies/Staff CPD & teacher /leadership training
  • Internal & External resources to support (including pupils)
  • Relationship-based behaviour management
  • ACE/Trauma-informed perspective on behaviour

Useful Websites

Pat Sowa
Pat is a former primary head who has dedicated herself to raising awareness of mental health issues following the loss of her son Dom, aged 17.

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