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As UK schools designate lead staff for mental health, we look at why this is a really good thing for young people at risk of eating disorders.

As schools go back for the Autumn first term, they are responding to the Government’s July 2018 update to Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision: a green paper.

Schools will appoint mental health leads. They are likely to be an existing member of school staff but someone senior enough to take a strategic overview of the school’s approach to mental health, supporting not just students, but staff as well. Of six roles outlined by the Department of Education, we find two of particular interest: – supporting the identification of “at risk” children; and having knowledge and links with local mental health services and referring children to them when appropriate. For children at risk of eating disorders, prompt specialist assessment is vital.

Ellern Mede provides education in a therapeutic setting to children receiving treatment for eating disorders and we find that a great deal of their progress happens as a result of the supportive education they receive. Headmaster of Ofsted ‘outstanding’ Ellern Mede School, Adel Shirbini comments: “We have always offered a very close liaison on behalf of each child with their usual school and other health professionals. I absolutely welcome the Government commitment to expand the resources within local schools for awareness, identification of mental health issues, and support for this to young people and teachers. It can go a long way to reducing where conditions are not addressed in time and reducing resulting longer term impacts. This is particularly true in the case of eating disorders.”

TES, YoungMinds and the HeadsTogether organisations are supporting teachers with guides for their new roles. Download a copy here of HeadsTogether’s one page article: Tips on
having a conversation with a child about mental health. HeadsTogether is championed by Kate Middleton (pictured).

TES’ Chris Parr writes on how you start a conversation on mental health with a young person: “Ideally conversations will be opened up by a classroom teacher, a well-liked and sensitive teaching assistant or a playground staff member who is well-known to a child/children (rather than a supply teacher). Every school should make sure that anyone working or interacting with children understands safeguarding procedures and has the necessary training.” Why talk to children about mental health, Chris Parr, (TES), 27 August 2018

A great new resource for teachers is the Mentally Healthy Schools website. We report on some of the site’s advice below, you can also find the full article here.

So why talk to children about mental health?

Just like physical health, everyone has mental health. Children need to learn to recognise that we all respond to experiences with a combination of emotions, feelings, thoughts and behaviours and we can learn to be more aware of our own physical and mental responses, including signs like increased heart rate linked as much to feelings and thoughts as physical activities. We can learn to be more aware of when we feel anxious or afraid. These elements make up our mental health.

Calmly and confidently opening up conversations in our classrooms, dining rooms and playgrounds can encourage children to talk. There might be days when we feel sad or we struggle and other days when we feel confident and calm. Importantly, we can have a conversation about asking for help when we need support.

Starting a conversation

Find an appropriate time and relaxed place to have the conversation.

When protecting and supporting children, there are always limits to confidentiality. Talk to your designated safeguarding lead (DSL) if you are at all concerned and follow your school’s safeguarding policy/procedures. Make sure the child knows you may seek advice or guidance from other professionals.

  • You don’t seem your usual self today. Would you like to talk about anything?
  • You seem sad/worried today. Do you want to have a chat about it/is there anything I can do to help?
  • You said something interesting in circle time about how you felt when… How do you feel about it now?

Tips for school teachers:

  • If a child discloses in class, offer empathy, invite them to talk in a safer, more private setting and talk to your designated safeguarding lead (DSL) for advice about how the situation should be managed.
  • If you invite a young person to tell you their personal issues, be clear what you will do with this information. Consider how you will respond if asked ‘not to tell anyone’.
  • Sit on a low chair if you can – so there is less height difference and you will be more approachable.
  • Check with the child if there are other trusted adults (parents, the wider family, teachers) or friends they have talked to or could talk to.
  • Listen carefully, be patient and friendly and give your full attention.
  • Check your body language so that the child knows you are focusing on them.
  • Take what they’re saying seriously. Don’t over-react but don’t try to minimise or dismiss what they are saying. Ask open questions to encourage them to talk.
  • Be calm and acknowledge their feelings.
  • For young children drawing, modelling or playing with toys while the conversation is progressing can be helpful.
  • Offer empathy and understanding rather than solutions. When a child receives empathy they begin to develop trust.
  • Remember we are all different and children will respond in their own unique way to their experiences.

 

Further reading: School mental health leads, Helen Ward TES, 25 July 2018