Mental health matters

What does positive mental health look like?

Why mental health?

One of my 'biggies' recently and for the year ahead is mental health. You may not agree but for me it is a growing concern; not just among students but adults as well. We read news articles about the need for the NHS to invest more in mental health. Efforts to equate its importance to that of physical health are being made AND it's ever more prominent as a problem in our society today, with statistics showing that 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year (yes problem, not clinically diagnosed disorder but problem, and given that stress falls under this umbrella I feel that this is more likely a higher number) And so in my bid to pay more attention to my own personal mental health I also want to take advantage of my role as PSHCE coordinator and focus on the mental health of our school, our staff and our students this year.

What is mental health?

Mental health can be a somewhat taboo topic that gets swept under the carpet because either a) it isn't visible and can't be seen or b) it isn't understood or prioritised. I particularly like the definition from the WHO which points out that positive mental health is more than just the absence of a mental illness, as you can see below. And in assessing your own mental health you may ask yourself some questions. Are you aware of and confident in your own abilities? Do you feel you always cope well with the stresses of work and life? To what extent do you contribute to the communities around you?

It is also important to note that mental health is not fixed and can change depending on circumstances, as can physical health. There is also a clear distinction between mental health difficulties or problems, like anxiety, depression, self harm or stress and clinically diagnosed mental health disorders or illnesses, like compulsive disorders, bipolar disease and schizophrenia. Just because a mental health problem has not been clinically diagnosed does not mean it does not exist.

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Mental health in school

As places of learning and socialisation, schools are in a prime position to develop positive mental health and reap the many benefits that come with it. But it is also important to note that in their school years, students are more susceptible to mental health issues as they experience changes to their bodies, challenging social interactions and changing expectations from their family, friends and teachers. 10-20% of students a year are likely to experience some mental health difficulty -that equates to almost six students sitting in your classroom.

Research has shown that students (and staff) with good mental health:

* arrive at school ready to learn

* cope with many demands

* engage socially

* are more likely to achieve higher academic success

* feel a sense of belonging

What does positive mental health in school look like?

I continue to be of the belief that schools play an equally important role in the academic development of students as they do in the social and emotional development of students and staff. By focusing on the latter, and in turn boosting mental health, schools will see:

* improved academic performance (as seen in our GCSE results)

* increased enrolment and attendance

* higher retention rates (as evidenced in our largest Year 12 cohort to date)

* positive culture and word of mouth in the community

* improved positivity and productivity

* students who can respond to challenges and exploit opportunities

* better relationships within and between staff and students

* students and staff who make valuable contributions to society

Positive -v- poor mental health

So how does one with positive mental health differ from one with poor mental health? Well in many ways really but it is important not to make judgements about others. The student who appears happy and who is achieving top grades could easily be suffering from an eating disorder or panic attacks.

Those with positive mental health tend to:

* bounce back from setbacks and disappointments

* have strong connections

* display positive attributes, like optimism, confidence, positive self belief and identity

Whereas those with poor mental health:

* may find a school environment demanding

* may struggle to engage in school work

* can't concentrate on tasks

* can't tolerate uncertainty or demands

* can't engage socially

* can't cope with daily demands

The three areas of mental health

By consolidating mental health into three areas we can begin to identify ways by which we can act as a school, and as educators, to improve the mental health of our students and staff: resilience, risk factors and protective factors. Certain risk factors will make some of us more vulnerable to falling victim to mental health difficulties or disorders. These may include peer rejection, trauma or socio-economic disadvantages to name but a few. Whilst we can identify and be aware of these factors, they tend to be somewhat outside of our control as a school. However, we can focus on resilience building and the establishment of protective factors to help overcome and minimise the risk for these vulnerable students/staff.

I will speak more about resilience in future smores as I feel it is a crucial life skill that is disappearing rapidly in humankind. Resilience is our ability to cope with challenging situations and experiences. Our resiliency levels are determined by our personal skills, our emotional state and our social connections.

Protective factors help to cushion us from poor mental health and once in place, they can lower our risk of experiencing difficulties or disorders. They include the creation of caring, supportive relationships and environments. Oprah Winfrey and John Lennon both suffered traumas growing up but are both proof that having just one caring adult to love and support you can help you to deal with and overcome trauma. As teachers, sometimes we are the only people who can be that one adult for some of our young people. Protective factors also stem from having strong competencies, or positive self belief about our competencies, and from having a sense of belonging in our communities (Do all your students feel they belong in your class? Is your form group/classroom a safe, caring community for students?).

Small steps you can take

To begin, here are some little (effortless) steps you can take to contribute to the positive mental health of those who you encounter on a daily basis.

* Give a compliment to someone

* Send some positive feedback home

* Share your feelings (positive and negative) with staff. Talk.

* Care for yourself more (how much time do you dedicate to you and your well being?)

To learn a little bit more about mental health visit the following websites and direct your students, family and friends towards them.