Strategies for promoting mental health and wellness

Nicky Hardy

Deputy Head and Head of Pastoral at Leighton Park School

Read the blog

According to recent government figures, unauthorised absence rates for schools across the UK were higher than the previous spring term, with poor mental health and long waits for support, cited as a key reasons for these absences.

Contemporary students grapple with an array of daunting challenges that stretch beyond the traditional academic rigours of secondary schooling in the UK. The omnipresence of social media exerts immense pressure, fostering a culture of comparison and self-doubt. Concurrently, mounting apprehensions regarding climate change and social justice fuel existential concerns about the future, adding layers of stress. Compounding these issues is the pervasive strain of the cost-of-living crisis, disrupting family dynamics and exacerbating financial burdens on students. The enduring repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have upended education and social resilience, exacerbating feelings of isolation and uncertainty. In the backdrop of these modern tribulations, students face the timeless pressures inherent in navigating the complexities of secondary school, creating a perfect storm of mental health challenges.

With May marking Mental Health Awareness Month, I draw upon my insights and experiences to offer guidance on how schools can develop more robust strategies to support the well-being of today’s students.

Celebrating achievements outside of academic success

Maintaining a healthy work/life balance is increasingly challenging but vital for preventing burnout, especially in today’s work environment, where one in five UK workers faces mental health-related absences due to stress. It is therefore imperative that students learn how to effectively manage academic pressures while prioritising their physical and mental well-being.

Schools must reconsider their approach and prioritise extra-curricular activities to enhance students’ mental well-being alongside academic pursuits. At Leighton Park, we have an extensive games and well-being programme in curricular time, which includes a variety of cooperative and less competitive physical activities such as badminton, judo, pickle ball, yoga, and swimming, in addition to traditional team sports. Moreover, our Co-Curricular programme offers over 90 hobbies, ensuring students have ample opportunities to explore their interests and engage in activities that resonate with them.

Engaging in activities they are passionate about not only enables students to develop skills beyond the classroom but also fosters mental resilience. These pursuits provide an enjoyable outlet for stress and help students forge lasting friendships and support networks, contributing to their overall well-being.

Additionally, adopting personalised development programmes has become crucial. According to recent studies, a third of UK adults feel the skills they were taught in a classroom didn’t help prepare them for real life, while only 36 percent of school children feel prepared for working life.

At Leighton Park, our dynamic Personal, Social, Health, and Economic (PSHE) programme is regularly refreshed to tackle contemporary student issues and empower them with essential skills for navigating adolescence. Alongside this, we offer a robust Careers Education and Guidance curriculum to support future aspirations, supported by a dedicated Careers Advisor and work experience opportunities. Furthermore, Creativity, Action, and Service lessons are seamlessly woven throughout all key stages, nurturing collaboration, and cultivating crucial soft skills such as compassion, ethical leadership, and resilience.  Our Oakleaf Diploma extends beyond academics, offering Sixth form students a chance for holistic development. It focuses on essential skills and nurtures future community leaders through diverse activities. From leading ethical initiatives to gaining practical work and life skills like financial literacy and first aid, the Oakleaf Diploma equips students to succeed academically and in adulthood.

Redefining the school hierarchy

Challenging the traditional school hierarchy involves reconsidering the practice of addressing teachers solely by their last names or honorifics like ‘Miss’ or ‘Sir’. This long-standing custom, historically upheld to instil respect and reinforce educators’ authority, needs to be reevaluated.

Recent studies indicate a concerning decline in student-teacher connections, indicating a low point reached last year. The latest DfE report highlights that only 2 in 5 students feel safe in school. This calls for a revaluation of teacher-student relationships. It’s vital for students to feel safe and to have at least one trusted adult at school.

As a Quaker ethos-led school, we promote students addressing teachers by their first names. While this may differ from the conventional practice in traditional schools, it aims to break down communication barriers, ensuring students feel listened to. Additionally, our teaching and support staff serve as personal tutors, leading small tutor groups of 9-11 students. With three scheduled check-ins each day, tutors can promptly address pastoral issues as they arise and build more of a rapport with their tutees.

This departure from tradition is not exclusive to Quaker institutions. An interesting Tes article, suggests Schools in the UK may be out of step in still requiring students to address teachers in a formal manner. The shift towards calling teachers by their first names signifies a progressive step towards creating more inclusive and communicative learning environments, prioritising mutual respect and open dialogue between students and educators.

Promote inclusive community engagement

Despite the best efforts of educators, bullying remains a prevalent problem in the UK. According to recent ONS figures, over a third of UK children aged 10 to 15 years old experienced in-person bullying last year.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community are significantly more likely to experience bullying, making them more likely to suffer from poor mental health compared to their peers. In a survey of 34,000 LGBTQ+ youth (ages 13 to 24 years old) 73 percent faced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The same number reported symptoms of anxiety, while 58% experienced symptoms of depression.

Discrimination, bullying, and feelings of exclusion can profoundly impact students’ mental health and overall educational experience.

Educators have a duty to create environments where every student feels valued, respected, and supported. This begins with the implementation of robust Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategic plans that prioritise the needs of students and promote understanding and acceptance among all members of the school community.

Provision includes designating safe spaces within the school where students and allies can gather, connect and seek support, as well as offering additional staff training to ensure that they have the knowledge and skills needed to create inclusive learning environments.

Improve access to support services

Improving access to support services for students is a monumental task that requires a multifaceted approach. Schools must harness both internal resources and external partnerships to effectively meet students’ mental health needs. Establishing onsite counselling services staffed by trained professionals is a crucial step, ensuring students have immediate access to support when facing mental health challenges. However, there’s no denying that implementing such services can be challenging, requiring careful planning, funding allocation and staff training.

In addition to counselling services, integrating wellness programmes, workshops and well-being Apps into the school curriculum and tutor time equips students with essential coping skills and resilience-building strategies. This proactive approach not only addresses immediate mental health needs but also promotes long-term well-being. Nevertheless, navigating the integration of these programmes into an already packed curriculum poses its own set of challenges, requiring collaboration between academic and well-being departments and buy-in from school leadership.

Fostering strong support networks both inside and outside the school setting is one of the most important facets of supporting students’ mental health. Peer support networks and mentorship programmes within the school community foster a sense of belonging and understanding among students, complementing formal counselling services.

Engaging parents is also crucial for ensuring students get the most rounded through targeted resources focused on mental health awareness and support strengthens the partnership between home and school environments.


12 June 2024