Advice for senior mental health leads in schools for World Mental Health Day 2021

It's world mental health day on the 10th of October 2021.  This year, I wanted to share my thoughts based around the approach Mental Health UK are taking, which is ‘Forward Together’.

An ongoing global issue, the pandemic has brought significant loss of liberty. For some, it has been an opportunity to connect and spend more time with family, reassess daily life and even do some home improvements.  However, for others it's been a time of momentous loss - of a job or loved ones - and of total isolation. How do we recover from this, and how can we help our school community recover?

If you have seen the work of Barry Carpenter, Professor of Mental Health Education from Oxford Brookes University, you will know that reconnection is a priority. With social distancing (an oxymoron in itself) now fading, moving ‘Forward Together’ is a crucial part of recovery.


Schools are social spaces

The start of the school term in the UK has been hectic, with all energy being directed at attainment, dealing with mental health difficulties and school inspections. Yet it should be remembered that schools are social spaces too, and teaching a people-centric profession.  If the pandemic and school closures have shown one thing, it’s the importance of face-to-face interaction between teachers and pupils, and the relational nature of learning.

One of the significant ways all schools can ensure reconnection is by putting social and emotional learning at the heart of their curriculum and values, counteracting, in some way, some of the effects of the losses and isolation which have occurred.  Training staff to spot the signs of mental health difficulties is also crucial, and now part of our statutory duty under Keeping Children Safe in Education legislation.


Pooling good practice

But what about you, as senior mental health lead?  Everything has restarted: inspections, scrutiny, the need to ensure that our curriculum is fit for purpose, and yet COVID hasn't gone away. There’s a risk that, in focusing on ‘getting back’ lost time and learning, we will hunker down and focus purely on our own school.  However, I’m going to suggest something that might feel counter intuitive right now.  To move forward together, if you haven’t already, reach out and connect with other senior mental health leaders. 

Having worked with hundreds of schools over the years, I know that those schools who network, are outward facing, support others and are supported by others, employ good practice from a whole-school, mental health perspective.  To me it’s always an indicator of a curious, reflective, forward-thinking school that is willing to learn, with the view to creating an inclusive and healthy environment. 

The Department for Education is taking the opportunity to improve school networks through its accredited senior mental health lead training and grant, available from September 2021. A key feature of the training is that it includes an element of networking and mutual learning. Pooling ideas doesn’t just provide opportunity for learning, but also builds confidence and resilience, simply through the very process of sharing.


A network that’s right for you

Finding the right network, however, can be a bit like choosing a therapist: you do need to find the right one for you and this can sometimes take time!  Networks might be established formally, perhaps through your multi- academy trust or local school’s consortium, for example, or informally via an online meeting or a coffee with another senior leader.

Networking might cause anxiety: in sharing ideas or resources, you may fear criticism, or that you will be set off course from your school’s intended path or vision. You may also fear that other schools won’t share or give back, but in my experience someone always will. The biggest barrier to networking might be that you think you won't have time.  Yet the benefits of sharing ideas and gaining insights from others far outweigh the time needed, as long as it’s the right network for you.  


Top Networking Tips

So how do you ensure you’re in the right network, and moving forward together?  Here are some top tips if you are looking at more formal networking:

  • Make sure the network has some type of shared purpose or strategy, sometimes called terms of reference or mission statement.
  • Ensure that there is a nominated person each session who can keep everyone on track. Contributions should be as constructive and positive as possible.
  • Confirm that the network provides opportunity for members to influence the content of the sessions and themes discussed.
  • Be prepared to share, engage and be curious; you will get the most out of the network this way.
  • Check that there is a diverse range of schools and communities represented in the network.


Link to Further Information

You may feel you want to set up your own network, so here is a link to a guide on how to set up a senior mental health lead network, and more information on networks. 

Further Information

Respectful relationships are at the heart of our school communities: they help them to soar. Our out-of-school connections add another layer of support and opportunities for progression.  But ultimately on this World Mental Health Day, knowing that someone has your back and you are connected to others is a significant part of enhancing your own mental health and wellbeing, and in turn the mental health and wellbeing of your whole school community; ‘moving forward together’.

Anna designs and delivers CPD on mental health and wellbeing for schools in conjunction with The National College. For more information on this and CPD covering all aspects of school life, and on the benefits of School Membership, please click the link below.

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