Wendy Cobb, Senior Lecturer in the School of Teacher Education and Development and Bea Stevenson, Head of Emotional Health at School at Family Links, discuss the need to encourage and establish a foundational change in the education system that positions mental health at the heart of all teaching and learning.

In September The Sun newspaper headline summarised ex-health minister Norman Lamb’s call for early intervention for mental health issues as ‘Kids in Crisis – Solve Britain’s mental health crisis by offering treatment to toddlers to stop problems later in life’.  This focus on early ‘treatment’ makes the assumption that mental health illness for our youth is inevitable.

For years health experts have called for a shift in general practice from an overwhelmingly reactive to proactive approach, arguing that ‘prevention is better than a cure’, yet mental health advice for schools appears to continue to be heavily weighted on reactive approaches to safeguarding and signposting support for a range of mental health issues.

Indeed, the Department for Education’s proposals to train a ‘designated lead for mental health’ and deploy ‘mental health support teams’ in schools, is responsive rather than proactive in nature. While the proposals address a much-needed demand in support for children with mental health illness, the proposals are not brave enough to look at the causes of the rise in mental health issues within the education system itself e.g to what extent are exam stress, teacher burnout and academic definitions of success contributing to the problem? And to radically rethink what we prioritise and incentivise in our schools, in place of the current culture and associated pressures of ‘outcomes accountability’.

In our emotional health leadership roles at Canterbury Christ Church University’s Faculty of Education and Family Links: The Centre for Emotional Health, we have been working within wider partnerships to promote a fundamental shift in the education system and therefore schools. Through this lens, emotional health is seen as the foundational approach for education, ‘the bedrock for a positive learning environment‘.

That is why we have embedded emotional health within our initial teacher education and mentor development programmes and why we developed through our partnership masters level leadership training for positive mental health through our Post Graduate Certificate in Social and Emotional Learning.

Teachers need knowledge, skills and understanding, to be able to prioritise their own emotional health in order to support the health and learning of their pupils. This includes, but is not limited to, responding to mental health concerns. A child, or indeed adult, with a mental health illness will be better supported and nurtured within an emotionally healthy environment: one that genuinely prioritises the relationships, health and academic success of the whole community.

Until leaders at all levels are supported (and incentivised) to make emotional and good mental health the core of their purpose, it will always come second to academic outcomes and therefore be side-lined or become the responsibility of a few overwhelmed people within the system.

We need the courage to establish a foundational change to our education system that positions positive mental health at the heart of all teaching and learning.