Addressing Mental Health Issues in Schools

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 14 May 2018
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

Writing in The Irish News on March 27th 2018 Leona O Neill highlights the alarming statistics that almost 300 suicides occurred in Northern Ireland last year and that 10% of school children under 16  have been diagnosed with a mental health issue. The article points out that schools can obviously play an important role in both helping prevent mental illnesses becoming acute and in helping young people cope with issues like depression, stress and anxiety when they inevitably arise. During my own time as a school leader I know this was a subject which caused a lot of concern among colleagues and it clearly remains a top priority for the welfare of the pupils in our care.

The ability to talk about our feelings is an ingrained cultural weakness in our society and my experience as a pastoral care teacher and counsellor in school showed me that most of us lack the vocabulary to talk effectively about our emotions. Many tragedies over recent years where young people harm themselves or even take their own lives demonstrate that we must help young people to talk about their feelings. One danger is that we can, for example, attribute powerful descriptors like despair and fear to describe relatively low-level feelings of anxiety more appropriately labelled perhaps as “discomfort or embarrassment”. We lack the ability to differentiate and properly rate levels of anxiety. With teenagers, in particular, the inability to deal with the emotion of embarrassment can present significant challenges. It is the basis of peer group control and often prevents pupils from speaking out in class or taking a leading role in group settings. As teachers, we may even be unconsciously guilty of making this worse by using pupil embarrassment as a control mechanism. Singling out a noisy pupil in class, or asking them to stand up are well-tried strategies and I have used them myself too when in the thick of it!

So are there things we can do to improve general emotional intelligence? In a school setting any change in this area must begin at the top with school leaders. Writing in Educational Leadership in May 2002 Michael Fullan reminds us that;

“Emotional intelligence is a must. Emotionally intelligent leaders are able to build relationships because they are aware of their own emotional makeup and are sensitive and inspiring to others”

Writing on Strategies for Increasing Emotional Intelligence in January 2018 in the Very Well Family US website, Sheri Gordon describes strategies to help pupils learn valuable skills and advises on how to embed this social and emotional learning into existing classroom practice.

She suggests that students who are more resilient are more academically successful. They also bounce back quicker, are mindful of their opinions, and understand their beliefs, all of which gives them a strong sense of who they are. And when resilient pupils are bullied, they are less likely to suffer as many consequences as kids who are not resilient or secure in what they believe. 

Stressing empathy and caring behaviour also develops emotional intelligence. One way to encourage empathy is to frequently challenge students to put themselves in another person’s shoes. During lessons ask questions like “What do you think he was thinking?” or “How do you think she was feeling?” Empathy helps young people develop positive relationships, which is the cornerstone of social and emotional learning. It is recommended that we encourage students to listen to others and ask them to try to understand how others might be feeling.

Echoing Michael Fullan’s point about starting this approach with school leaders we must also recognise that an emotionally intelligent classroom teacher is the first step to an emotionally intelligent classroom. Should we therefore consider how our own communication with and treatment of students models emotional intelligence?

Some possible strategies appealed to me in a recent Edutopia article.

Start your day with a morning class meeting to support social and emotional learning: It helps build a sense of community, creates a climate of trust and encourages respectful communication.

Introducing journal writing can be an effective way to help students develop self-awareness. Giving pupils responsibility for tasks in your classroom, such as maintaining computers or whiteboards and basic administration tasks.  These duties help encourage a sense of responsibility among students and provide everyone with the opportunity to contribute to daily classroom management.

“Joshua Freedman, director of programs for Six Seconds, a non-profit organisation supporting emotional intelligence in families, schools, corporations, and communities, suggests that creativity is most necessary in times of emotional hardship, such as when we're frustrated or angry. By providing your students with ongoing opportunities to express their creativity, you'll also be helping them handle the inevitable problems that life throws at them.”

Here in Northern Ireland, useful advice from the Department of Education can be found in the link below in the Pupils Emotional Health and Wellbeing publication May 2011. In addition to links to school self-audit tools it summarises an excellent definition of pupils' emotional health and wellbeing.

“Being mentally and emotionally healthy means that we believe in ourselves and know our own worth. We set ourselves goals that we can achieve and can find support to do this. We are aware of our emotions and what we are feeling and can understand why. We can cope with our changing emotions and we can speak about and manage our feelings. We understand what others may be feeling and know how to deal with their feelings. We also understand when to let go and not overreact. We know how to make friendships and relationships and how to cope with changes in them. We understand that everyone can be anxious, worried or sad sometimes. We know how to cope with, and bounce back from, changes or problems and can talk about them to someone we trust.”

This summary very clearly defines what pupils should be able to do to function as mentally healthy people. Above all else though, having staff in a school who have the ability to make these strategies a reality is surely the most important part of any plan.


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This article is correct at 14/05/2018

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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