Children’s experiences of school, and young people’s experiences of college and university, have a major impact on their mental health. Education settings at every stage can have a positive and powerful impact on our mental health
. Inclusive education in relation to sexuality, for example, has been shown to reduce homophobic bullying in schools, preventing a significant risk factor for poor mental health. Adopting a ‘whole school approach’ to mental health benefits everyone but can have particular benefits to those facing the greatest risks.
For children facing some of the greatest barriers to a good education, such as those with learning disabilities and autism, and those with severe behavioural difficulties, the use of restrictive interventions and exclusions (including off-rolling) cause significant and lasting harm to both mental health and wider life chances.
Foster mutual, or peer support, networks. Encourage them to flourish and enable them to make changes within the school.
Foster collective impact:
Work with outside agencies, and other schools, to deepen impact across the wider system, bringing back learning to your own setting. Belong to professional networks seeking mental health and wider equalities.
Ensure positive identity:
Celebrating a community’s culture and building a positive identity can help both to challenge oppressive ideologies and reframe mental health as something that can be created collectively.
Education settings seek to ensure equality by focusing on supporting all their pupils to thrive. The most effective schools and colleges make equality core to their purpose, plans and operating model rather than relying on one-off activities. Ensuring good working conditions, fair and equal pay, just policies and practices, and freedom from bullying are all critical elements of a healthy workplace
What this looks like will inevitably be different in different localities and for different communities. For some, interventions need to be re-designed or adjusted: for example for autistic people or those with learning disabilities. For others, including deaf people or those whose first language is not English, specialist interpretation services may be needed. Peer-led services, resourced and supported, can also be helpful for communities in terms of gaining vital hope and empowerment, as well as to fill a gap for those who do not trust formal services.
People with lived experience, in whatever form, bring new and vital knowledge to the table. Dismissing, denigrating and denying this is a foundation for social injustice. Advocacy from lived experience challenges this injustice and shifts the balance of power towards a more equitable exchange. This requires a commitment to cede power and to be prepared to learn from lived experience.
Engagement can be particularly important for young people, and especially those who are most marginalised. Further education (FE) colleges are an important and often overlooked setting for mental health support, yet they disproportionately serve young people who have had the least opportunities and who find formal health services least attractive: for example those who have been excluded or ‘off-rolled’ during secondary school, and those taking on apprenticeships, where formal mental health support is less available.
Mental health support
needs to address and respond to the struggles many people face while living with mental health difficulties. Help with family, study and relationships is an important aspect of mental health support that has often been regarded as an add-on to clinical care.
Addressing the structural inequalities that underlie poor mental health moves services away from an individualised approach that prioritises treating illness or promoting ‘resilience’ towards a collective approach that sees people in their social context and seeks to make change happen around them too.
For example, the charity Youth Access provides “advice and information services that can help young people access their rights and entitlements, and address broader issues that go hand in hand with mental health – such as housing, money and relationships – sometimes referred to as the ‘social determinants’ of mental health.”
For many people, mental health difficulty is connected to experiences of oppression, disempowerment and violence. Poor mental health can result from experiences of racism, bullying, exclusion and injustice, and mental health support need to be able to offer the opposite to these experiences. Approaches such as trauma informed care and cultural competency can facilitate this by creating a sense of safety and by seeking to listen to and understand people’s narratives on their own terms.