A Thought Piece by Alison Quinn 13 December 2018

There is often a stigma, a fear factor attached to mental health. Staff may think, ‘does this really concern us?’ One of our areas of responsibility as teachers is social, emotional and mental health so yes, this is part of our everyday roles and we do need to know about it. It’s not about being a counsellor, it’s about knowing the basics and having enough knowledge to be able to spot the signs and provide support.   

We therefore launched our Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) programme in September 2017, embarking upon a mission to train every member of E-ACT staff to understand and recognise the early warning signs of mental health problems. The programme also involved working closely with pupils to devise a bespoke mental health curriculum tailored to each academy’s particular needs.  

635 members of staff trained in youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) 

Last year, our Deputy Chief Executive Jane Millward set us a target of training 500 members of staff in youth Mental Health First Aid, which seemed like a challenge! We have however managed to smash the target, training 635 members of staff over the academic year. Our aim is for every single member of staff that has regular contact with children to be trained in Youth MHFA.  

Lightbulb moments 

At every MHFA training session, you see this lightbulb moment for a member of staff. For example, I had a member of staff from Heartlands tell me about a school refuser who was exhibiting odd behaviours. He believed the world was going to implode and he thought his room was his fortress.  Staff put his behaviour down to his autistic spectrum disorder, but through the training, they realised that he may in fact be exhibiting psychosis. Now, that student has the appropriate services helping him.  

Focusing on mental health and wellbeing 

Research shows that focusing on mental illness isn’t the best way to educate students. Instead, it’s better to look at wellbeing as well as providing information on mental illnesses. So when we started developing our mental health curriculum, I worked with our pupil mental health ambassadors to draft the frameworks for our mental health curriculum.  

Since implementing the programme, the difference has been amazing with a significant jump in students’ attitudes towards mental health. 

Supporting staff and parents 

We’ve just started rolling out the Adult MHFA training which will focus on staff wellbeing. We’ve also been looking at ways that we can support parents, introducing coffee mornings with mental health first aiders and mental health champions.  

‘It all comes down to emotional wellbeing and being in a positive place.’ 

How we approach mental health, and our understanding of it, is improving through this programme. Already, it’s made people stop and think, ‘I thought this person was being a bit off, but maybe there is something really bothering them.’ The stigma is reducing and people are more aware. I think this will be even more powerful as we roll out our mental health curriculum to students.  

Ultimately, it’s about our staff and students being happy. It may sound corny, but if you’re happy, you’re going to do better and work harder – whether that’s in a lesson or in your place of work.

Alison Quinn is Regional SEND and More Able System Leader for the Midlands and E-ACT’s mental health lead.