“One thing I think schools can do is to try to de-stigmatise mental health” - mental health champion Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon, the Department for Education's mental health champion for schools

Natasha Devon, the Department for Education's mental health champion for schools - Credit: Archant

Tackling mental health problems is an increasing priority for teachers. Martin George talks to the government's mental health champion for schools.

More than ever, our schools are on the front-line of dealing with mental health issues.

Last year, the Department for Education appointed Natasha Devon as its first mental health champion for schools, and promised a £1.25 billion investment in young people's mental health.

Speaking after a conference Norfolk headteachers organised about mental health last week, she said she was unsurprised by an EDP survey of teachers where 80pc reported a rise in young people with mental health problems.

'I think schools are expected to do more and more', she said. 'They are absorbing the consequences of cuts that have been made to services. It's an unfortunate and unfair reality that teachers are being expected to identify mental health issues and deal with them.'

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Despite the challenges, she told the conference she did not want to simply raise problems without offering solutions.

She said: 'One thing I think schools can do is to try to de-stigmatise mental health, and that's really easy to do.'

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One suggestion is that teachers mention mental health in all subjects, so the issue is normalised.

She supports the idea that mental health should be part of teacher training, and be extended to all school staff, so everyone from the dinner lady to the headteacher has confidence in dealing with what can otherwise seen a scary issue.

Ms Devon's official role does not extend to the school curriculum, but she nonetheless has opinions.

'I think the restrictions on the curriculum that children are doing less arts, music and drama is adversely affecting their well-being', she said. 'It's something I keep saying to the Department for Education, but it is not something I can change.'

Mental health champion Natasha Devon's advice for parents

How and when should schools and parents raise mental health with children?

For Ms Devon, it has to be tailored to their age, but 'it's something we should have awareness of from birth', with even babies' experiences influencing their future self-esteem and mental health.

One goal is to encourage children to talk about their feelings when they are young, and equip them with the vocabulary talk about their emotions if problems emerge later.

'Teaching children to experience their emotions in a healthy way is something that we can do from as soon as they enter school at four,' she said.

During Years 7 and 8, she thinks schools should talk about healthy habits, such as having a cut off point to put their phone down, and questioning what they see in the media.

By Year 9, she thinks it is time to talk about mental illness.

Is there a need for mental health counsellors in all schools - primary and secondary?

Ms Devon cited Northern Ireland and Wales, where she said every school has access to a counsellor, with outcomes much better than in England. She is sceptical of government claims that 86pc of schools have access to a counsellor, but think they should, to give more children the confidence to seek help.

However, she added: 'There are a lot of people who call themselves counsellors. If you were to introduce a counsellor in every school, we would have to make sure they went through an accreditation process.'

It is a theme she returns to when discussing the confusion of websites, organisations and jargon that can confront parents seeking information.

Ms Devon says a lot of the information out there is actually 'quackery', but there are talks 'at governmental level' about introducing a kite mark or accreditation system to let people know what is reliable.

Do you have an education story? Email martin.george@archant.co.uk

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