What's mental health?
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual achieves their potential, copes with the normal stresses of life, works productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel and act.
Like physical health, mental health is something we all have. It can range across a spectrum from healthy to unwell; it can fluctuate on a daily basis and change over time.
Good mental health helps children:
- learn and explore the world
- feel, express and manage a range of positive and negative emotions
- form and maintain good relationships with others
- cope with, and manage change and uncertainty
- develop and thrive.
Building strong mental health early in life can help children build their self-esteem, learn to settle themselves and engage positively with their education. This, in turn, can lead to improved academic attainment, enhanced future employment opportunities and positive life choices.
Promoting mental health
There is good evidence that schools can help all children develop essential social and emotional skills through delivering bespoke sessions designed to cultivate these skills, through ensuring broader opportunities are capitalised on to reinforce skills across the curriculum and through whole-school modelling of these skills. Social and emotional skills prevent poor mental health from developing, help all children cope effectively with setbacks and remain healthy. These whole-school programmes are noted to benefit all children but particularly those who are at most risk.
Schools can support these children by providing them with additional help to understand and manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviour and build skills that help them to thrive, such as working in a team, persistence, and self-awareness. Find out more about targeted small-group work programmes and counselling.
Mental health doesn’t mean being happy all the time. Neither does it mean avoiding stress altogether. Coping and adjusting to setbacks are critical life skills for children, but it’s important that they develop positive, rather than negative, coping skills.
- Negative coping skills are attitudes and behaviours that have often been learned in the absence of positive support and in the face of stressful and often traumatic events and experiences which, over time, may put good mental health at risk.
Example: children at risk of or experiencing maltreatment in the home may have learned to react quickly and in a certain way (flight or fight or freeze) to survive and keep themselves safe. But in a classroom, these reactions may not work well and could get them into trouble, disrupt learning and make them unpopular with teachers and peers. In the longer term, these learned behaviours may also impact on their mental health and wellbeing, sense of belonging, educational achievements, peer relationships and life chances.
- Positive coping skills are ways of thinking, attitudes and behaviours that allow children to deal with stress or adversity and which help them flourish. These positive coping skills form an important part of a child’s ability to be resilient in the face of setbacks and challenges. Children who have cultivated robust coping skills can still thrive with support, even when they are mentally unwell.
What affects child mental health?
A child’s mental health is influenced by many things over time.
Children have different personalities and they will be exposed to a range of factors in their homes and communities that can trigger worsening mental health (risk factors), or alternatively protect them and help them feel able to cope (protective factors). Ideally, all children should have at least one adult in their life who is monitoring whether they are coping or not. See our risks and protective factors for more information.
Identifying children who are struggling
Deteriorating mental health is not always easy to spot and can be overlooked until things reach crisis point. At least two children in every primary school class (based on average class size of 27) are likely to have a diagnosable mental health condition. This rises to three to four students in every class by secondary school age (Green, 2005).1
Around a further six to eight children in each primary school class will be struggling just below this ‘unwell’ threshold (Wyn, J. et al., 2000).2
Mental health: why it’s important to schools
We are not expecting school staff to become mental health experts. Schools are the ideal environment in which to promote and support the mental health of primary age children, ensuring they can reach their potential and take advantage of opportunities throughout their lives:
- Most children spend a significant amount of time in school and school staff are in a good position to piece together the jigsaw of what may be undermining a child’s mental health.
- Parents also tend to approach schools first for advice when children experience mental health challenges.
- There is strong evidence that school programmes which promote social and emotional skills can improve mental health and academic attainment.
- Children with good mental health are more positive, settled and can achieve better academically.
- Early help can also prevent unnecessary crises, poor life chances and significant costs affecting the public purse.
Mental health: roles and responsibilities of schools and school staff
We hope that this website will help you develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to recognise:
- what part you can play during your day-to-day school activities to promote and support children’s mental health and wellbeing
- when a child may be beginning to struggle, what factors might be undermining their wellbeing and what simple things schools might do to support and develop children’s resilience and their ability to thrive
- when a child might need additional help, either linking children at an early stage with support in school or signposting to the broader landscape of local and national support to help them cope more effectively and de-escalate problems early.
Find out more:
- Staff roles and responsibilities:
- Staff mental health and wellbeing
- How to develop a mentally health school
1 Green, H., McGinnity, A., Meltzer, H., Ford, T., & Goodman, R. (2005). The mental health of children and young people in Great Britain 2004. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave.
2 Wyn, J. et. al., 2000. MindMatters, a whole school approach promoting mental health and wellbeing. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 34(4), pp. 594-60.