• Mabel Osejindu

Mental Health First Aiders for UK Teachers?

Mental Health First Aiders for UK Teache

It is too cliché to say that teaching is a stressful job. A hard profession. A crazy ride. Teaching children can be challenging when one takes into account the various issues a teacher might face such as teaching children of varying educational needs, navigating parent evenings, supporting family problems, preventing bullying, classroom management, learning coordinator roles, writing educational reports, wage freezes, lack of resources, poor funding, Ofsted(!), examinations, assessments and biggest of all, managing overall workload. With that all in mind, it got me thinking about how teachers and educational professionals cope. How do they navigate through these challenges on a daily basis? And is there consistent or available support for them in doing so? Some teachers have that one teacher friend who relates entirely to their daily experiences in the classroom and can rant, gossip and unload all of that worry and frustration, often with humour. Sometimes that’s needed for one’s mental health. The whole ‘better out than in’ saying goes here perhaps. School staff rooms are great for this unloading process too (even if it is restricted to a half an hour lunch break). Teachers often rely on a trusting teaching assistant or class workmate for this too. But I imagine not every teacher has that one friend who is also a teacher. There may be times when our fellow educators are busy, occupied or simply not able to offer the emotional support that teachers need after a long day or demanding week. The experience of teaching is very different for say Early Years teachers compared to say Year 7 teachers and so it's unlikely to always find someone to relate to at your level or department of work. Unless…there’s this. The mental health first aider.

A mental health first aider is essentially a trained individual who is present to help any person in the workplace who may be experiencing a mental health issue or just emotional distress or crisis. They are a point of contact and a source of reassurance. They can help to spot the early signs or symptoms of mental ill-health, initiate or partake in supportive conversation and listen to them non-judgmentally. 1 in 4 of us are likely to suffer mentally in our lifetimes and preliminary stress can contribute to poor mental health in the workplace if left unaddressed. Mental health has been brought to the forefront of conversations since the Coronavirus pandemic. Mental Health Awareness Week has also grown in popularity and significance each year too. And with that, the discussion surrounding mental health first aiders. Companies like Deloitte, PwC and WHSmith have already jumped on the prioritising the presence of mental health first aiders in the workplace wagon and many smaller companies are too in a range of different fields. It got me thinking about when the Department of Education or local authorities might do the same.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England provides training for anyone wishing to become a mental health first aider in their workplace. The training is the mental equivalent to physical first aid. It’s designed to raise awareness of mental health and reduce the stigma that can often surround mental health issues. The course equips people with the knowledge and confidence to support someone who is experiencing mental distress. Given the novelty of the term ‘mental first aider’ for some of us, it’s interesting to discover that Mental Health First Aid training actually came to England in 2007. The Department of Health: National Institute of Mental Health in England (NIMHE) developed and launched the programme as part of a national approach to improve public mental health.

Given my own experiences and observations over the years, I pondered how amazing it would behave a fellow colleague stationed at my school or setting who is readily accessible to all teachers to support the mental health of everyone in the team by being someone to simply talk to, receive advice from or just cry with. Imagine if teachers didn't have to go home and struggle to sleep, grab a self-pleasuring drink or continually contemplate leaving the profession. From time to time, teachers nowadays may have the once a year staff meeting on well-being so senior leaders can check the boxes that its done but mental well-being is an aspect of our lives that ought to be continually monitored and not just for an hour on a Wednesday night in late February.

Many teachers in recent months have witnessed the shift in focus on children's mental health and the requirement for teachers to guide their pupils on how to support their own mental health through meditation, positive affirmations, a changed mindset, sports or deep breathing. In many ways, teachers act as mental health first aiders for their pupils on a daily basis. If a child is distressed or struggling emotionally, their class teacher or tutor reaches out as someone to speak to and help settle them down.

So why do schools not invest in the same practice for teachers? Every school could have 1 or 2 trained mental health first aiders that regularly check in with teachers to see that they are managing their workload and prioritising their mental wellbeing. Make sure they got 8 hours of sleep! Ensuring they are actually having a lunch break! Leaving work at a reasonable time to allow for sufficient time with family! After all, it’s very hard to pour a drink from an empty cup. How can teachers support their children’s mental well-being adequately if their own mental health is not being supported? It’s a win-win if we had both. We could reach an optimum cycle that could improve the running of our schools and the performance of both staff and students. Some may argue that this sort of mental well-being service could be something that teachers could seek out themselves through the NHS or private therapist. After all, there is a plethora of mental health support services including Better Help, Mind, and Turning Point. But, I find that it's much more of a reassuring thought to offer a service like this back to teachers who serve the children and their families so diligently through the academic year. Having a mental health first aider sends out the message that schools and colleges value their staff and are aware of the challenges faced and want to actively ease that burden for the betterment of the whole school itself; not to mention retention of teachers too. Does your workplace have a mental health first aider and what impact would it make if there was one?