One mental health first aider per school is not enough

I welcomed Theresa May’s announcement on Monday in which she said “every secondary school in the country [is] to be offered mental health first aid training”. MHFA England has campaigned for many years to get school staff trained in Mental Health First Aid and are thrilled that there will be at least one Mental Health First Aider in each secondary school.

But it doesn’t go far enough. Every single teacher, as part of their teacher training course, should be trained in Mental Health First Aid.

Poppy Jaman, CEO of MHFA England, said:

Mental ill health in young people is a growing health concern, with half of all lifetime cases of mental health issues starting by the age of 14.

There is a bespoke MHFA England course called Youth Mental Health First Aid which could be modified for teacher training. A short course could change a young person’s life.

A teacher overseeing a class of 30+ pupils needs to have the skills to recognise early warning signs of mental ill-health. One first aider per school can help in moments of crisis, but cannot possibly pick up all the mental health warning signs within the school population. A large part of the MHFA course is in learning about various mental health problems (such as stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide ideation, psychosis) and how to intervene early on.

I advocate that every primary and secondary school teacher needs training in spotting the signs of mental ill health in their pupils. Mental Health First Aid teaches what to do when there is evidence of mental ill health. This ranges from calling 999 if there is immediate risk to health; referring the pupil to a CAMHS team or GP; dealing with panic attacks; talking through options with a pupil, etc.

If every teacher training course had a Mental Health First Aid component, then teachers would have the skills and confidence to get involved. Too often mental health has to deteriorate before treatment is offered. Too often there is a mental health crisis and people stand by and do nothing, unsure of what to do and hoping it will pass on its own.

We have to get involved. We have to support our young people. We need a Mental Health First Aider in every classroom.

* Kirsten Johnson is the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Spokesperson for Oxford East and a member of the Federal International Relations Committee.

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  • I completely agree that all teachers should receive this training, somewhat surprised that they don’t already, it is as vital as safeguarding training in ensuring that people receive support and treatment at the earliest opportunity. In my own profession this training has enabled staff to recognise and act upon signs of self harm, eating disorders and suicidal ideation, depression and anxiety, as well as enabling them to feel more confident in promoting and discussing the importance of good mental health for everyone. Surely a positive move?

  • nigel hunter 11th Jan '17 - 9:30pm

    With training both in teaching and mental health education the vocation could again become a profession of high regard.

  • We need a Mental Health First Aider in every classroom.
    Do we, given we don’t have a First Aider in every classroom?

    I suggest the model we should be looking at is more akin to safeguarding. Here, as a sports coach, part of my qualification I had to complete a “Child Protection Awareness in Sport and Active Leisure” module. Completion of this module didn’t qualify me to do anything about child protection other than to increase my awareness of signs to watch out for and report any concerns to the appropriate safeguarding officer.

  • Kirsten johnson 12th Jan '17 - 8:29am

    Thanks for writing in. Yes, many businesses now incorporate Mental Health First Aid and this has met with great success in reducing staff sick leave and improving general health and well-being. It is interesting to learn of the model used in sports coaching. I have done safe-guarding training as part of volunteer work and it was very valuable. MHFA is more than safeguarding, however, it gives the skills to intervene and offer support on the spot to those suffering mental distress. I agree that with children and vulnerable adults, safeguarding is intertwined with offering appropriate support, but I think teacher training should include both.

  • Nigel Jones 12th Jan '17 - 4:22pm

    Agreed. Training for awareness should be built in to teacher training and support which is needed probably during the first 5 years of a teachers’ career. This I hope includes what not to do. In recent years, my experience with people’s mental health problems has taught me how to react and not get involved in discussions about the issues they raise when upset. The pressures of a teacher’s day will need adjusting, so they have time for brief calm conversations and can listen to the young person, without voicing judgments.

  • Kirsten johnson 13th Jan '17 - 7:50am

    Nigel, you are absolutely right that it is important to know what to do but also what not to do when someone is experiencing mental health crisis. MHFA shows some video clips of bad practice. Listening, being non-judgemental and getting someone in a panic to breathe are all important. MHFA does go beyond that, but there is a strong emphasis on listening, otherwise how can you get the right support for that young person?

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