Dr Pooky Knightsmith

Keynote Speaker, Author & Advisor

March 22, 2023

ARTICLE: How to Create a Whole-School Culture of Mental Health

Over the past year, it has been an absolute joy to see so many mental health leads embracing the role and making the most of government-funded training to develop their skills and understanding and maximise their impact.

One thing is clear though – this is a big job and if you are to really have an impact you will need to build either a formal or informal team.

In this article, I am sharing some ideas we have learned along the way about how to successfully build a team around the mental health lead and enable a genuinely whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing.

Identify the naysayers

There will be those who don’t value the whole-school approach to mental health – identify them early to make sure that they don’t trip you up. Instead of working against them, it can help to consider what their aims are and whether there is anything your work will do to support them in their role. There is often more synergy than people realise and this can begin to bring more reluctant colleagues on board.

  • Is there anyone who springs to mind who might act as a blocker or downer?
  • What can you do to better understand their motivations?
  • How do your aims align with their aims – look for synergy.

Who are your ears?

Who can help you to ensure that even the quietest voices get heard? Are there members of your staff, student or parent community who may be able to help obtain or represent the opinions and views of their peers, including quieter groups?

  • Whose voices are not being heard?
  • Who might be able to help you access these voices (remember, support staff/office staff can often help build bridges within the parent community)?
  • Can you proactively recruit to ensure representation?
  • Can you identify a lead governor for mental health and get them involved?
  • Can you develop a small team of “GOALIES” who will Go Out And Listen so you hear a range of voices?

Work with your allies 

This is a big job and because one of the key things you will often be looking to do is to have an impact on the culture and ethos of your school, it is not a job that can be done alone. Be accepting of help and ask for people to support you in your role. Within every staff team and wider community there will be people who are passionate about mental health who may be willing to support you with their time, suggestions or expertise. If you don’t ask, you won’t get.

  • Who’s got your back and who would be happy to pitch in?
  • Are there practical jobs you can give to people who are passionate and keen to help?
  • Identify a lead governor for mental health and get them involved
  • Build relationships, including with the SENCO, designated safeguarding lead, school nurse, front-line staff, family support workers, learning support assistants, and education welfare officers.
  • Practise positive delegation, enabling colleagues to grow their skills and experience by sharing the load.

Champions and change-makers

Within your staff, students and wider community, try to identify both champions and change-makers. Champions are on board and will help to promote and share positive messages and generally be supportive of new initiatives and ideas. Change-makers will help to upskill and educate others and be proactive in facilitating change. 

  • Who are your current champions and change-makers?
  • Do you need more – can your initial group support with recruitment?
  • How can you harness the energy of those who wish to help and put it to good use?
  • Can you adopt a train-the-trainer approach to upskill your change-makers? 
  • Cascade messages via your champions – have clear aims and messaging

Don’t just do, communicate too

Communicating is almost as important as doing when it comes to the whole-school approach to mental health. Consider how you can ensure that everyone is on the same page, that new ideas and initiatives have been clearly communicated, and that the message has landed as you’d hoped. 

  • Use your GOALIES to understand if your messages are being heard.
  • Clear, consistent, concrete communication is key.
  • Communicate in a variety of ways.
  • Every now and then, stop to admire the view and celebrate what’s going well.

Expand your network

Your team doesn’t have to simply exist within your school or setting, though that is a great place to start. You will find there is even more strength if you are able to connect with other people doing a similar role in other local settings, or via online networks. 

  • Can you get to know the mental health leads of settings you work with closely?
  • If you are part of a trust, could you develop a trust-wide network?
  • What are you doing well that you would be happy to showcase/share? What would you like to learn from others in return?
  • If you do/have done mental health lead training, can you keep in touch with others you learned alongside?

Downloadable version

Here is a downloadable version of this article which you are welcome to share.

This article was originally written for SecEd Magazine. You can read my past SecEd articles here.

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