teacher 2Teachers must be trained to spot signs of mental ill health in children if schools are to meet a new Ofsted requirement to measure pupils’ emotional wellbeing, according to a mental health expert.

Caroline Hounsell, director of partnerships for Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA England), made the call for education about mental health to be a mandatory part of teacher training at a conference on children’s mental health at Bradfield College on October 2. The National Children’s Bureau has echoed this call.

Ofsted’s move follows a report by Public Health England earlier this year that set out actions headteachers should take to support the emotional wellbeing of students and their teachers. A report by the government’s Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Taskforce also recommended teachers receive appropriate training, given that one in 10 schoolchildren have a diagnosable mental illness.

“Depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts in children don’t show themselves as obviously as a broken leg,” Hounsell said. “This means it’s all too easy for a teacher to miss the tell-tale signs of emotional and mental health issues in children.

“And while most teachers know the basics of physical first aid, they have no first aid box to turn to when worried a child might be in distress. Many teachers tell us they feel out of their depth. So sometimes they shy away from talking to pupils they’re concerned about, not knowing how to broach the subject and afraid of upsetting them. Most are simply not equipped to meet the challenge of a rising tide of mental illness sweeping through our young people. They need help – they need training in mental health.”

Headteachers and parents agree. In a recent poll by an educational consultancy, two-thirds of principals named mental health as their top concern. Parents told the government’s Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Taskforce they want to see teachers trained to spot problems. 

Research has shown early intervention is vital to prevent mental health problems worsening, with 75% of adult mental health problems starting by the age of 18, according to a 2013 report by the Chief Medical Officer. With teaching once described as the most stressful occupation in the UK by the Health and Safety Executive, teachers need help to cope with stress too.

“What we find once teachers have been trained is the whole culture of the school changes,” Hounsell added. “As well as becoming more alert to the emotional needs of their pupils, the course breaks down the stigma of mental illness for teachers, and they become more supportive of each other and more aware of their own limits.”

The National Children's Bureau (NCB) has joined the call for mental health training for teachers. Anna Feuchtwang, the NCB’s chief executive, said: “Coming into everyday contact with their pupils puts teachers in an ideal position to spot mental health issues as they arise. But these problems present themselves in many different ways and teachers cannot be expected to know the tell-tale signs and how to respond appropriately without proper training. Mental health should be a part of every teacher’s learning, so they can actively support the mental health needs of children and young people, and step in before problems escalate.”