Mental Health First Aid – ‘You Can’t Pour from an Empty Cup’

Mental health first aid - you can't pour from an empty cup

We explain why schools need to know about Mental Health First Aid.

Mental health first aid: why is it so important?

In the same way that everyone has physical health, everyone has mental health; this can be good or poor and a range of factors can affect this. For the majority of people, work is the place that they will spend the majority of their time and for this reason it can be a source of stress and pressure that can contribute to poor mental health. Especially for teachers, work/life balance can be a challenge to find, particularly due to the seemingly universally accepted fact that teachers take work home and complete it in their own time in order to accommodate the ever-increasing workload that is teaching.

Increased pressure can be managed if it is only for a short-term, but long-term exposure to stress can result in high blood pressure, anxiety and panic attacks, ultimately leading to a diagnosis of depression. Think about pressure and challenge like a balloon: when it is not blown up at all or properly, it will not be fulfilling its true purpose or potential; over-filling the balloon will lead to extreme strain and if it is continuously and unrelentingly filled, this could result in pushing it too far until it pops; the optimum for a balloon is to be filled with air so that stretches to accommodate the challenge, but not so that it is pushed to its absolute limits. Positive mental health relies on appropriate challenge and the feeling of accomplishment when goals are achieved. And to continue the metaphor, balloons can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, so what is overfilled for one balloon might not be for another.

Statistics show that when a mental health condition is recognised in its earlier stages, it is notably easier to manage and treat. And this is where employers come in. Think of them as the person who blows the balloon up. It is essential that when taking such a proportion of someone’s time and energy that a balloon blower is able to recognise and respond to signs and symptoms that a balloon may be under pressure and may be in danger of popping. In fact, it would be far better if the balloon blower was able to identify a balloon was under additional pressure before it becomes a serious issue and supports the balloon in managing that pressure by letting some of the air back out.

And by that I mean that SLT and head teachers of schools need to be able to recognise when rapid policy changes, bottleneck points of the year and workload are becoming too much of a strain on their staff, at whole and individual level. The fact is that mental health can have significant implications and not just on the individual who is trying to cope and manage their symptoms. School leaders need to think longer term about the actual costs of working staff into the ground, including the additional monetary costs of long term cover; the lack of stability for students, which will impact on their performance and attainment; and the department that have to pick up the strain of a member of staff who is absent long term due to a mental health condition.

This feeds into the Government Response to the Consultation on Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: a Green Paper, which is a commitment to deliver Youth Mental Health First Aid Training into every state secondary school by 2020. How can schools begin to tackle the issue of student mental health when the mental health of teachers is currently such an issue? Teachers need to know that their own mental health is properly and sincerely supported in order for them to support student individuals. After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

So what needs to happen now?

Three key steps schools can take to support mental health for teachers in schools are:

  1. Reduce stigma

Training key members as Mental Health First Aiders means that staff will have access to trained colleagues who they can talk to and seek advice from at an earlier stage. These Mental Health Champions shouldn’t just be line managers, HR and SLT: they need to be approachable members of staff who are naturally supportive instead of professionally accountable for the staff they are speaking to: this will help members of staff to feel safe and comfortable in talking to someone about their mental health. This should be supported with a clear policy that is not linked to capability or performance.

  1. Treat each case individually

Stress and pressure will feel differently to different people at different points. Someone returning from maternity leave will experience their role differently with the change in their circumstances. An NQT may find workload more challenging to juggle as a new recruit to the career, but that doesn’t mean to say that a member of staff who has been teaching six years, but now has more challenging classes due to their increased experience, shouldn’t be supported if they need it too. Personal circumstances, such as a separation or the loss of a relative can have an impact on work too. Stress is a question of perception: to some, what is on their plate is manageable; to others, the same plate will be challenging. This is why it is essential that schools take the time to know their staff on an individual basis and understand how their individual circumstances will impact their wellbeing.

  1. A Supportive culture of praise and reward

Positive mental health is dependent on a person being able to set and accomplish goals. This gives an individual a sense of purpose and achievement. When schools constantly change policies, focus on negatives and set unobtainable objectives, the positive culture of a school will decline. Praise and reward will ensure that staff feel appreciated and will reinforce their sense of worth. Of course, every school must keep developing and sometimes it is out of the school’s hands what changes are implemented, but positivity breeds positivity.

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