Building Resilience for Mental Health - a New Priority

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 22 January 2020
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

Like many people in recent months I became transfixed by the endless television coverage of both the Brexit debate and the drama around the General Election. Alongside that however has been growing alarm at the worsening conditions for staff and patients in our health service. Then, with the restoration of our devolved administration, some cautious optimism started to filter through that we could actually begin to prioritise what is really important. Listening to a radio discussion about a Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service report on suicide statistics in Northern Ireland, I heard the shocking statement that; “almost every day in Northern Ireland a person takes their own life”. In 2018 there were 307 reported suicides here. It highlights the fact that suicide is a major public health issue which devastates families and communities and should be up there alongside waiting lists as a national priority.

Read moreSuicide statistics and strategy in Northern Ireland: Update

As the Stormont Assembly resumes its work, conversations are developing about how the much talked about money for schools and hospitals will be spent. As well as the ability to fix the most urgent problems, we also have a rare opportunity to reorganise our public services to make best use of this funding. Surely this can also apply to the mental health crisis blighting the lives of our young people. Effective support systems and preventative strategies need to be built into a better resourced, “joined up” approach.

The role schools can play is of course around prevention and early detection of young people at risk. Lots of examples of good practice are available to show us the necessary direction of travel. Some of the best ideas can be found in material from Young Minds, an organisation dedicated to mental health.  Established in 1993 it is now the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people.  Over 5000 young people told a recent Young Minds survey that their top concerns are the impact of social media and the online world, lack of access to help, school stress, unemployment and worries about how they look.

Learn more: Young Minds - Building Resilience Training

Currently the official response in Northern Ireland from The Department of Health is the Protect Life 2 Report, A Strategy for Preventing Suicide and Self Harm in Northern Ireland 2019-2024. In its opening paragraph the report highlights that;

“.... suicide is preventable and the feelings that drive suicide are often temporary. With the right help, people can get through a suicidal crisis and recover.”

The report is clear that effective prevention is a collective responsibility and sets out 10 objectives and 44 actions which will require government departments and stakeholders from all sectors of society to work together. 

A detailed implementation plan with progress indicators is to be organised by the Public Health Agency and a new Strategy Steering Group will be established to drive forward the actions and report on performance and progress. Certainly, this approach has the potential to address the problem in a co-ordinated way.

Read more: Protect Life 2 A Strategy for Preventing Suicide and Self Harm in Northern Ireland 2019-2024

Those of us with experience of working every day with young people in schools are acutely aware of our responsibility to ensure their safety and welfare. The Department of Education has important advice for schools on identifying warning signs of possible suicidal thoughts in pupils and how staff should best engage with the young people presenting worrying indicators. The advice warns that it can be very difficult for a young person to disclose distress, so it is essential that he/she is given time and attention. The young person should be taken seriously and feel safe and have confidence in the adults offering help. Of course, the young person needs to know that the information will be handled sensitively but also that it must be shared with others. Careful supervision is essential while the Designated Teacher makes arrangements to safeguard the child and contact the pupil’s parents and ask them to access the GP/Out of Hours Service requesting an ‘emergency mental state assessment’ and potential referral to CAMHS. 

Read more: Identifying Warning Signs - Protecting Life in Schools

I wrote last term in the run up to The General Election about the promises politicians were making around addressing mental health issues in young people. I highlighted how cuts in school budgets in Northern Ireland have put pressure on the time schools can give to the pastoral care provision and curriculum which, if done well, could try to head off many of these developing mental issues and teach effective coping strategies. The radio discussion referred to above and the advice from the Samaritans in the link below, stresses the need to build resilience in young people to give them the emotional vocabulary and skill set to cope with the difficulties presented by their social media dominated reality. Perhaps this aspect of classroom work needs greater prominence now given the urgency of the situation and should be part of the Steering Group plan.

The Samaritans suggest that in order to build resilience we need to have a toolkit of strategies that keep our lives in balance and might help us feel better able to deal with the challenges that come our way.

[Video] Resilience - Samaritins

Find out more: Samaritins - DEAL: Building Resilience 

While schools are under ever increasing pressure to deliver academic success, the stark reality is that, however great the examination results are that pupils achieve, they are of no value to them if as adults they lack the resilience of character and emotional balance to be as successful in their lives and relationships as they are in their careers.

So, we have short term goals to help young people cope better with the difficulties they face in their teenage years, but also longer-term objectives to equip them with the self-awareness and coping skills to have lifelong good mental health. The Young Minds survey also flags up the need for a change in our social culture to encourage us to share our worries and accept that we all have vulnerabilities and concerns. There is a danger that our televised political dramas can, like reality TV shows, distract us from paying proper attention to the things which really matter most.


This article is correct at 22/01/2020

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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