How can schools support mental health in children – and why is it so important? 

Hope Virgo is a leading advocate for people with eating disorders, having battled against anorexia. In this guest blog, she shares her story, and explains how schools can support children in looking after their mental health.

Hope Virgo

When I was 13, I developed anorexia, and at the time, felt like it gave me a sense of value and direction. I struggled to express myself so as soon as the emotions became too painful, I developed a new coping mechanism: to not eat.

Over time, the anorexia got worse, and four years later I was an outpatient at CAMHs, feeling unable to do anything to tackle this illness. After six months at CAMHs, with a failing heart, yellowing skin, and my hair falling out, I was admitted to a mental health hospital. The journey from being admitted was the first part of my recovery.

How can schools support children with their mental health?

Mental health has become a huge topic of conversation and we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of our understanding, and reducing the stigma surrounding it. However, the problem hasn’t been resolved – there is a lack of funding and a lack of understanding among those who need support about where to turn.

We know that 1 in 10 children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental problem. Yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age, according to the Mental Health Foundation[1].

We know that the mental health crisis is getting bigger, CAMHS is currently overstretched and schools are often trying to refer young people but with nowhere for them really to go. We all have a duty to try and tackle this, especially in schools.

There are questions governors can ask to help raise awareness of eating disorders and mental health within their school, and things schools can do to support their pupils.

  1. Is the school an inclusive place where mental health conversation is normalised? We talk about physical health symptoms like headaches and broken legs with little embarrassment – but can we say the same for mental health?
  2. If so, how is mental health monitored?
  3. Is mental health taken seriously or is it a tick box exercise? I recently spoke at The Festival of Education and heard some young people speaking about PHSE. They felt the real power in their PHSE lessons was when the teachers actually believed in what they were saying, where there were real stories. If we want young people to feel okay talking, and feel equipped, we need to make sure teachers are able to deliver this – and if not, invite external speakers to speak about the issues.
  4. How are we pushing the role of healthy lifestyle alongside mental health? Schools are responsible for educating our young people and we need to ensure the right emphasis is given particularly around health. Schools have the opportunity to remove the emphasis on diet chat and calories and instead educate young people with the facts and figures around mental health problems, and give them an understanding about loving themselves.
  5. Can parents access support? Are we normalising these conversations for parents too so that they don’t feel embarrassed or self-conscious if their child develops a mental illness?
  6. Is there a sufficient emphasis on pastoral care in the school? Are staff supported to offer the pastoral care pupils need, and would they feel comfortable reaching out to a young person in need?
  7. Does the school bring in external speakers to share their experiences and provide a role model of mental health recovery? We need to make sure that children with mental health problems know they can still live their lives, achieve things and also that they are in a powerful position to change government policy.

I am now in recovery and have been since I entered that hospital eleven years ago. I managed my recovery since leaving hospital with one relapse, but now feel in a better place with my anorexia. I know that the voice in my head is not worth listening to – it lies to me. I have my coping mechanisms in place and I now use my story to help other people.

Managing a mental health issue is difficult, but with the right support in place, we can not only prevent mental illness escalating, but build inclusive, supportive schools that equip our children and young people to tackle it. @Hope Virgo

Hope Virgo is the Author of Stand Tall Little Girl, and helps young people and employers (including schools, hospitals and businesses) to deal with the rising tide of mental health issues which affect one in four people and cost employers between £33 and £42 billion annually. Hope is a recognised media spokesperson, having appeared on various platforms including BBC Newsnight, Good Morning Britain, Sky News and BBC News. 

The Mental Health Foundation