'We must empower parents to support mental health'

'We must empower parents to support mental health'

The responsibility for safeguarding our most vulnerable students during the Covid-19 outbreak has caused many a sleepless night for those on the pastoral frontline in schools.

This is particularly on my mind this week, as it's Mental Health Awareness Week.

Over the past two months, institutions have adapted their safeguarding policies and procedures and are adjusting to distance-practice that is far from conducive to usual effective pastoral care.

This is particularly the case for the increasingly prominent feature of pastoral practice around the need to identify and respond to the ever-varied mental health needs of young people.

Usually, schools rely on teachers to detect the subtle changes in an individual student’s behaviour and report via internal safeguarding channels.  

Pastoral success stories are usually the product of rigorous intervention and sustained monitoring. However, with a lack of time with pupils in school, these successes may begin to slip away.

Crucially, problems that would, ordinarily, be promptly addressed by experienced staff might be left to escalate and fester.

The result is the potential of long-lasting damage during a young person’s time as a learner and their future beyond school.

The landscape is worryingly unclear. Child and adolescent mental health services have reported a 50 per cent decrease in referrals to their service since the escalation of the virus and the subsequent lockdown.

It’s clear that the professionals who make decisions based on mental health thresholds, those who apply early intervention and create the referrals for further specialised support, are unable to sustain this practice during the crisis - especially as many year groups will not be back until September.

Increasingly, therefore, the onus is on parents and carers to help with this work. This is a significant challenge, not least because they themselves are attempting to navigate through these uncertain times.

Of course, conversations with parents and carers about their child’s mental health are delicate at the best of times. Feedback isn’t always readily received, and is often dependent on factors such as culture or familial circumstances.

All agencies, therefore, must empower parents with the confidence to detect, intervene and access further support for their child’s mental health.

A seemingly obvious concept, yes, but where decision-making regarding a young person isn’t from an impartial viewpoint and where adversity in society is affecting a greater number of both children and adults, an additional layer of complexity is added.

There will be enduring, significant changes to the educational landscape as we move through this crisis, and explicitly addressing mental health must be a systemic feature of the profession.

We know that many students will require bereavement counselling. Some may suffer with conditions related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and those with current mental health issues may experience an exacerbation of symptoms.

Effective learning and development will not be possible without the treatment of social, emotional and mental health issues.

The national concern in relation to "addressing the gap" between the non-disadvantaged and disadvantaged students must be founded on the basis that their emotional wellbeing is being supported, too.  

The budgeting, the curriculum and the way that all staff regard students must be embedded in a culture that lives and breathes student wellbeing – including within students' homes, too.