By James Birchwood
On World Mental Health Day it seems a good time to consider how the work of educational psychologists can support the mental health of children and young people in our schools. Recent media coverage has focused upon a mental health “crisis” and the lack of services to support children and young people. In response to this, the government published Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision: a green paper.
Educational psychologists are mentioned once in the green paper; however, our profession has a crucial role to play, particularly with regards to a “whole school” approach (which is only briefly referred to). The school is a unique social system, and we need to harness its power in order to provide a broad approach to promoting good mental health, rather than focusing only on treatment.
The need to situate mental health promotion and early intervention approaches within education and community settings was highlighted recently in the University of Birmingham Mental Health Policy Commission’s “Building a resilient generation” report. Here it was proposed that, while interventions for existing problems are important, equal weight must be placed on creating a supportive environment where children and young people can flourish. Among their proposals, they suggest implementing whole-school approaches such as universal social and emotional learning programs, anti-bullying initiatives, and reducing the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
So where might educational psychologists fit in? We are a profession in an ideal position to be leading the implementation of such work, thus supporting schools to become universally empathic, attuned environments for all. Our understanding of child development, mental health and the school context means that we should be the ‘go-to’ profession. Either our statutory role should be extended beyond assessments for EHC plans, or schools should receive greater funding to buy-in our services for such work.
Here are some examples of how educational psychologists could (and do) promote the whole-school approach:
- We support schools to select and implement universal mental health initiatives (for example ‘Social and emotional learning’ and anti-bullying programs)
- We train school staff, to increase understanding of mental health, and to support them to respond appropriately to CYP in distress.
- We train school staff in understanding attachment and ACEs, and how this can inform the development of empathic, attuned relationships between staff and their pupils.
- We support staff wellbeing, with work ranging from universal staff wellbeing initiatives, to staff supervision. Working closely with senior leads is everyday work for an educational psychologist; we are ideally positioned to provide direct support for the proposed ‘School Mental Health Lead’.
- We use our research skills to help schools to evaluate interventions and develop provision.
- For a small number of young people we can offer therapeutic interventions that are based in the school rather than a more stigmatising context.
The government’s proposal to deliver more evidence-based interventions for those at risk should help some young people. However, there is more to mental health than responding to symptoms, and therefore we need a coherent system, with specialist intervention at one end, and the promotion of a mentally healthy ‘whole-school’ environment at the other. Educational psychologists are uniquely positioned to play a vital role in achieving this.
James is a tutor on the initial training course for educational psychologists at the University of Birmingham
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