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Hundreds of schools set to test mental health support techniques

Children will benefit from mindfulness, relaxation and breathing exercises

Mark Gould

Monday, 04 February 2019

Hundreds of children and young people will learn how to use a range of innovative techniques to promote good mental health through one of the largest studies in the world of its kind.

To mark Children’s Mental Health Week, which starts today, the education secretary Damian Hinds has announced that up to 370 schools in England will take part in a series of trials testing different approaches to supporting young people’s mental health.

Children will benefit from mindfulness exercises, relaxation techniques and breathing exercises to help them regulate their emotions, alongside pupil sessions with mental health experts. The study will run until 2021 and aims to give schools new, robust evidence about what works best for their students’ mental health and wellbeing.

Nine areas across the country will also trial new high-quality mental health assessments for young people entering care, helping them get the support they need to meet their individual needs at a time when they are more vulnerable.

Significant additional resources are being allocated to schools to improve mental health provision at an earlier stage through the government’s Green Paper proposals, including awareness of ‘mental health first aid’ techniques and teams of trained mental health staff to work with and in schools.

Led by the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families in partnership with University College London, the new trials are designed to explore the impact of different approaches at school, in recognition of the significant time children spend at school and the important role teachers can play in recognising changes in pupils’ behaviour or mood. To explore what works in schools to support young people’s mental wellbeing, the trials will test five different approaches. These include:

  • Two approaches focused on increasing awareness in secondary schools through short information sessions either led by a specialist instructor or by trained teachers. These include a set of tools to increase understanding of mental health and mental disorders among both pupils and teachers.
  • Three approaches in primary and secondary schools that focus on lighter-touch approaches such as exercises drawn from mindfulness practice, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques and recognising the importance of support networks including among their own peers.

The mental health assessment pilots, also run by the Anna Freud Centre, will look at providing improved mental health assessments for children entering the care system. Currently an estimated half of all children in care meet the criteria for a possible mental health disorder, compared to one in 10 children outside the care system, so these pilots – backed by £1 million announced last year - will identify the mental health and broader wellbeing needs of these children, including whether a referral to a more specialist service is needed.

The areas include two of the government’s Opportunity Areas Doncaster and the North Yorkshire Coast, where the programme will examine which professionals should be involved in the assessment and develop best practice that ensures every child’s individual needs are at the centre of the process.

Mr Hinds said: "As a society, we are much more open about our mental health than ever before, but the modern world has brought new pressures for children, while potentially making others worse.

"Schools and teachers don’t have all the answers, nor could they, but we know they can play a special role which is why we have launched one of the biggest mental health trials in schools. These trials are key to improving our understanding of how practical, simple advice can help young people cope with the pressures they face.

"To support this, we’re introducing compulsory health education in all schools, within which children will start to be introduced gradually to issues around mental health, wellbeing and happiness right from the start of primary school."

Dr Jessica Deighton from the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families said: "We know schools have a strong commitment to supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing but have had little clear guidance about the best ways to approach this. We want children and young people, parents and teachers to be confident that mental health in schools has an absolutely robust evidence base.

"This world leading research which, we at the Anna Freud Centre are proud to be leading, will provide that and has the potential to transform mental health promotion in schools across England. We also need to better identify the mental health needs of the most vulnerable children in society, particularly children in the care system, and an improved mental health framework will greatly help."

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