A teaching role in mental health


Schools and teachers play a vital role in recognising and supporting students with mental health problems

SCHOOLS AND teachers have an important role in the recognition of mental health problems and in promoting mental wellbeing for all children.

“Research has shown that mental health promotion and prevention programmes have significant benefits for children and teenagers. The earlier the intervention and the quicker a problem is picked up, treated and managed, the better the long-term outcome for the child and family,” says consultant psychiatrist Dr Sarah Buckley.

One in five young people has psychological problems and one in 20 has a major psychiatric disorder while one in 200 requires inpatient admission to a psychiatric unit.

However, as Buckley points out, mental health difficulties in children and teenagers are often unrecognised. Consequently, young people commonly go without treatment which is known to be effective and this occurs at a crucial developmental stage when they should be laying the foundations for their personal, academic and economic advancements, she says.

“The role that schools and teachers play in promoting positive mental health in children should not be underestimated. Creating a school ethos which promotes and builds strengths among students, whatever their academic profile, can turn risk into resilience and significantly reduce the prevalence and impact of mental health disorders,” Buckley says.

Buckley, who works at St Patrick’s University Hospital, Dublin, has come together with consultant psychiatrists Prof Fiona McNicholas and Dr Blánaid Gavin who work at the Lucena Centre in Rathgar, to write a guide for teachers called Mental Health in Children and Adolescents. It is also a useful resource for parents and others who work with children and young people.

She explains: “Sometimes teachers are the first people to identify a problem and to let parents know so that they can hopefully access services for their child. We saw the need for a resource or guide for teachers to go to for advice and information on mental health in children and teenagers.”

Mental health difficulties are the leading cause of lifelong disability with a very high risk of persistence into adulthood when untreated, according to Buckley. The negative impact of mental health difficulties across multiple domains of a young person’s life is very powerful, she explains, particularly on education, physical health and families.

“Students who have participated in mental health programmes report an increased ability to cope with problems and emotions and improved interpersonal relations.”

The book contains chapters on all of the common mental health disorders that affect children and adolescents including eating and mood disorders, substance abuse, stress, child abuse, autistic spectrum disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Each chapter presents the real-life scenario of a young person and provides teachers with advice on how to recognise symptoms of mental illnesses and tips on what they can do to help. The book also helps to dispel many of the myths surrounding mental illness and contains a chapter on commonly used medications in young people and their side effects so that teachers know what to watch out for.

A serious behavioural and emotional disorder that presents many challenges for teachers is conduct disorder, which is one of the most frequently occurring mental disorders in children and adolescents, according to the book, and is four times more common in boys.

“Teachers should have strategies in place to encourage positive behaviour and to identify children with behaviour difficulties secondary to mental health problems,” the authors state.

The book suggests that teachers can help provide a forum for children to “open up” about such problems by facilitating discussions during Social Personal Health Education (SPHE) classes. It can also be helpful to use a worry box or to ask children to draw their worries as a class exercise.

The importance of clear consistent communication between school and home is highlighted as this helps to ensure the child is getting the same message from authority figures in both settings.

Buckley says: “Access to a school counsellor can help children and is potentially less stigmatising than attending a mental health service. This can be of great support to a child who becomes distressed in class and may need a short break from the classroom. This form of supportive and relatively low-key intervention may be sufficient to calm the child and make the school day tolerable.”

Mental Health in Adolescents – A Guide for Teachersis published by Mulberry Publications