Building good mental health for Scotland’s young people

Building good mental health for Scotland’s young people

The increasing burden of poor mental health and distress amongst youngsters needs to be tackled head on in Scottish schools, according to a new report by the University of Aberdeen.

The report emerges from the £100,000 project, Investigating the Links between Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools, funded by the Scottish Executive, which explored how schools are dealing with a new tide of challenging behaviour thought to be triggered by poor mental health.

The project was led by Professor Janet Shucksmith, who worked with researchers Dr Kate Philip, Jenny Spratt and Cate Watson, all from the Rowan Group based in the School of Education at the University of Aberdeen.

One in four young people is estimated to suffer from poor mental health, with problems like self harming and depression becoming an increasingly common feature of the teenage years and below. Poor mental health or distress can often show itself as conduct or behaviour problems in school and out, and, as a recent meta-analysis carried out for the Nuffield Foundation showed, there is a clear link between conduct problems in adolescence and ‘multiple poor outcomes’ in adulthood.

Project leader Janet Shucksmith, said: “If we don’t want problems to stack up into later life, we have to start spotting young people’s distress at an earlier age and acting to remedy it.

“Schools are in a great position to act as this first line of attack on the problem. If there is really a willingness to take on the task, schools can do much in the way they organise themselves, the relationships they have with pupils and parents, to promote good mental health as well as all the current emphasis on physical health.

“Perhaps we need someone to do for mental health what Jamie Oliver has tried to do for kid’s eating habits at school.”

The research project’s main aim was to explore the different strategies in use throughout Scotland’s schools for working with those who become disruptive or withdrawn in school. The research revealed that professional understandings about mental health have shifted from talking of mental “illness”, and have instead given way to the more positive notion of mental “well-being”. The researchers found, however, that the notion that they might have some responsibility for working to improve young people’s mental health and well-being is still relatively new to schools and teachers.

Dr Kate Philip said: “Teachers shouldn’t be frightened by the new responsibility. They are not on their own in this. New policies to make schools the focus of delivering services for young people mean that there is a whole range of different professionals willing to share their experience and skills.

“Clinical specialists are there, of course, to support the most needy pupils, but the whole school community benefits from having staff trained to develop a sympathetic ear to children’s troubles and to act robustly to support them.

Dr Philip added that health workers, social workers, parent support workers and in-school support staff each have a distinctive contribution to make.

She said: ”These people need to work alongside teachers in order to reach a shared understanding of the problems and the remedies.

“Through integrated working, professionals from different backgrounds learn new perspectives and develop more rounded understandings of the problems faced by some children and young people.”

The Scotland-wide research involved interviews with key personnel from all local authorities across Scotland, as well as representatives of all health boards and a number of voluntary organisations with interests in mental health and young people’s welfare.

This initial scoping study enabled the research team to identify some innovative approaches to improving pupils’ mental well-being in schools, and these formed the basis of the next phase of the study which took the form of six in-depth case studies.

In one case study, the researchers focussed on a specially-designed programme in Aberdeenshire which allowed teachers to access internal school support to develop new responses to children’s challenging behaviour in the classroom.

Jenny Spratt, Research Fellow in the Rowan Group, and one of the co-authors of the report, said: “Rather than viewing the child, or children, as the sole cause of the problem, the teachers were encouraged to think in terms of how they could change the classroom, or school environments to reduce the likelihood of such behaviours.

“Teacher support was delivered through a school co-ordinator who was trained to take a counselling style approach and, although this service was primarily intended to enhance the well-being of pupils, teachers also reported a very positive effect on their own well-being.”

Within one Glasgow school, guidance staff worked closely with a refugee support worker who provided help to families and young people who had moved to Scotland from a range of countries in which young people had often experienced extreme trauma and stress. This was linked with work with a youth stress agency, which worked with the school on emotional literacy issues, running small groups and offering individual support to young people and parents in the community.

In Edinburgh, a number of primary schools work with the voluntary organisation, The Place2Be, which provides emotional support to children in the school. Their work shows that even very young children can experience significant levels of distress, but can benefit by being able to come out of class into a different area of the school with a more supportive therapeutic environment for a while until they have sorted out some of the things that have upset them so deeply.

The research highlighted that a shared understanding of the links between mental health and well-being and behaviour is the key to success in this field. The report concluded that,

“To take ownership of the links between mental health and well-being and behaviour, schools should undertake fundamental reviews of their structures and cultures, placing well-being at the very heart of their value systems,” added Ms Spratt.

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