Ellie’s* parents could see that something was troubling their daughter. Bedtimes had become a battleground and primary school pupil Ellie was so anxious that she couldn’t even go to the bathroom alone. Attempts to calm her down escalated into arguments that involved the whole family. Her difficult behaviour was also affecting her school work.
Happily, Ellie – and her parents – were able to get help from an innovative ‘whole family’ support programme, which embraces all schools in Merton. Since it started three years ago, the Mental Health Support Team model has helped scores of families across the borough, and has since been rolled out across South West London with 16 teams working across the six boroughs.
Levels of anxiety have risen among children and young people in recent yearsAnnika Clark, consultant clinical psychologist
“Levels of anxiety have risen among children and young people in recent years,” says Annika Clark, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust. “Since COVID, many young people are struggling with anxiety-related attendance issues at school. Secondary schools are particularly concerned about students who are presenting with high levels of risk and suicidal thinking.
“The Mental Health Support Teams have an early intervention and prevention remit, which provides holistic support to young people and their families across home and school. The help is there as soon as young people show signs of concerning behaviour.”
There are three teams working with school ‘clusters’ across Merton made up of between 12 and 20 schools. Each cluster supports a minimum of 8,000 pupils. In addition, Merton shares a one of their teams with Sutton for Special Education Needs (SEND). A Further Education College cluster also supports Merton College and further education colleges in the other five boroughs of South West London.
The teams offer individual interventions for mild to moderate anxiety, low mood and behaviour difficulties. In primary schools they work with parents and pupils. In secondary schools they work directly with young people, linking in with parents as appropriate.
Before these teams were established, children experiencing behaviour difficulties would be referred to Children and Mental Health Support (CAMHS), which sometimes involved a long wait or was not the most suitable service. The in-school nature of these teams means children can get support at a much earlier point.
All schools have a mental health lead – usually a teacher – and some schools employ a targeted mental health in schools worker, who meets families to discuss issues. Young people can also be referred to educational wellbeing practitioners who work for the mental health support team.
Unless your mental health is in the right place you can’t fulfil your school potential.”Izzy Rickards, head teacher at Holy Trinity School
“We use a ‘whole school’ approach to children’s mental welfare,” says Annika. “Staff are offered training in mental health issues and consultation space to discuss any families and pupils they are concerned about. Student assemblies, anxiety management workshops and parent workshops ensure that the whole school is involved in promoting – and supporting – young people’s mental welfare.”
In Ellie’s case, the whole family’s involvement was vital, according to Izzy Rickards, Ellie’s head teacher at Holy Trinity School in Wimbledon (pictured above).
“Ellie is naturally a happy and friendly child and her parents are caring and supportive. The family was supported through a six session programme called ‘Parent-led Guided Self-Help for Child Anxiety’, which was run by Merton’s education wellbeing service,” says Izzy. By introducing boundaries and learning calm-down strategies, Ellie and her family were able to work together towards new patterns of behaviour which have also been reflected in her school performance.
“Children spend the majority of their time in schools,” Izzy points out. “Unless your mental health is in the right place you can’t fulfil your school potential. We want children to feel open to discuss their issues and have launched a nurture class room for Key Stage 2, where children can talk about their anger and worries and work out strategies.”
Pupil, staff and parent surveys are used to gather information about the mental well-being of the whole school community and there is a picture of ‘who you can talk to’ in every classroom.
All the teachers at Holy Trinity have an important role to play in building up the whole school approach. They are encouraged to be open and honest to pupils about their own struggles to normalise talking about mental health.
Our students are more comfortable talking about mental healthJames Potter, chaplain, Wimbledon College
James Potter, the chaplain at boys’ secondary school, Wimbledon College, has recently take up the role of mental health lead. He says the Mental Health Support Teams and whole school approach mean young people are getting support at an earlier stage, before mental health issues have got too severe.
“Our students are more comfortable talking about mental health. They also feel more knowledgeable about noticing its signs in themselves or others, and how to access support.
“They benefit from talking about their needs with an adult. This helps them to understand a variety of different mental health and wellbeing issues which are relevant to young people and helps them to support their friends as well.”
*Ellie is not her real name, her story has been anonymised.