When dealing with Health and Safety in schools, colleges and educational establishments, it’s easy to focus only on minimising the risks that pose a physical threat to students and staff, when focusing on safeguarding mental health and safety is also just as important.
A recent NHS study suggests that mental health problems for young people are on the rise, and in England, the number of hospital admissions due to self-harm or self-poisoning in under 18-year-olds has almost doubled since 1997. Terrifying and saddening statistics, I’m sure you’ll agree.
It is vital, therefore, that the risks associated with mental health problems in young people and adults in education are managed with the same rigour and significance as physical risks.
Taking the management of mental health issues in schools, colleges and universities seriously are not only important because mental health problems can lead to physical injury, but also because poor management of mental health can lead to life-long illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders and behavioural conditions.
Just as you wouldn’t want one of your students to suffer an injury that had life-long repercussions, mental health problems can also affect students throughout their adult lives.
So how do we manage mental Health and Safety in educational establishments?
Traditional health and safety management systems will need to be adapted. Recognising physical injury is, for the most part, fairly straightforward, and assessing how incidents could happen requires common sense, experience and knowledge. Mental health problems, however, can occur due to the accumulation of a number of different factors, and can sometimes be difficult, if not impossible, to spot.
Assessing the risks to mental health requires communication, empathy and training, in addition to common sense, experience and knowledge.
Identifying the causes of mental health problems and recognising these risks in your educational organisation can help you to implement methods of minimising the risk and protecting your students and staff. You could think of it as a less regimented kind of risk assessment:
- Stress – While it’s perfectly natural to be feeling nervous, anxious or stressed about exams assessments and coursework, an overload of pressure and stress can lead to serious mental health problems developing. In a recent National Education Union survey of teachers (April 2018), 82% said tests and exams had the biggest negative impact on mental health, with exams causing young people acute stress, and many pupils breaking down in class due to the pressure or turning to self-harm or suicidal thoughts.
- Bullying – In recent years, bullying has evolved from the playground to online, with students being harassed via social media, email and text. Bullying can lead to mental health problems like depression and has been linked to self-harm and suicidal thoughts. If bullying occurs and involves criminal activity such as violence or assault, abuse, threats, or hate crimes, these must be reported to the police.
- Social Media – While the use of social media has not officially been identified as a cause for mental health problems, correlations have been drawn between social media use and feelings of low self-worth, as online platforms engender a culture of self-comparison with unattainable beauty standards and filtered, edited depictions of other people’s lives. It can also mean that young people spend more time socialising through online platforms instead of in person, which can lead to feelings of disconnection and isolation, which have been linked to depression.
- Problems at home – A significant correlation in young people has been identified between suffering from mental health problems and not being supported by a happy home-life. Problems could be linked to poverty, parents with disabilities, parents who are separated, the death of a loved one, drink or drug abuse, being witness to or the victim of violence or abuse at home.
- Identity – A strong correlation has been identified between mental health problems and young people who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. This could be due to feelings of stress regarding revealing their identity, discrimination by their peers and classmates, or a lack of LGBTQ+ community within their school.
- Other issues – just as sometimes people are unwell physically due to factors beyond anyone’s control, sometimes people suffer from mental health problems that no one could have predicted. It is therefore important that organisations are not only proactive about minimising the risk of students developing mental health problems, they should also be prepared to provide the support that students with mental health problems need in order to recover.
Identifying and measuring the risk in your school
- Ask students how they’re feeling – Reach out to students and asking them to feedback anonymously on the state of their mental health and what they think is affecting it. This can provide you with a good picture of the overall state of the mental wellbeing of your students, and whether their time in education is making a positive or negative contribution. Technology could be a useful tool to help educational establishments to gain insight into the mental wellbeing of students.
- Measure student workload – Collect actual figures on how much work your students are expected to complete, and how much time is spent on homework, coursework and independent study. Monitoring the support that is available for students outside of lessons and lectures can help you to gauge your students’ work/life balance. It’s important to consider that young people also need time to relax, socialise, play and pursue extra-curricular activities, and ensuring that your educational establishment is finding a healthy balance can help to alleviate stress and promote good mental health.
- Check in on staff – Stressed and overworked staff can inadvertently transfer some of their stress to their students. As budgets for education are squeezed and pressure on performance increases, tutors can find themselves overloading students with work and placing pressure on them to meet certain standards. Talk to staff about their own mental health, ask them how they’re coping and gather data on current stress levels and workloads. Again, making use of smartphone technology could be a huge help to break down communication barriers.
- Ask staff about the wellbeing of students – Teachers and lecturers should be able to spot if a student is acting unusually or if something seems to be amiss. Looking out for symptoms such as an unwillingness to socialise, despondency, no longer taking care of their appearance or a decline in attendance or achievement can help staff identify if there’s an issue with a student, and take steps towards intervention and mental health support.
Managing the risk
- Talk about it – one of the reasons issues relating to mental health are not dealt with and sufferers do not receive the help they need is due to the stigma surrounding it. By cultivating a culture of being open about our mental state, teaching awareness and integrating it into the curriculum alongside physical education and healthy eating, you are helping young people to recognise issues in themselves and feel unafraid to ask for help.
- Open your door – make students aware that should they need to talk to someone about their mental health, or if they are feeling overly stressed or overwhelmed, a member of staff is always willing to listen. This awareness that there is support should a student need it can help to alleviate feelings of isolation and encourage students to share their concerns.
- Train staff – dealing with students who are suffering from mental health problems should ideally be done by someone who has received mental health training. Providing selected members of staff with training means that students have access to a level of support that is well placed to guide them towards the most appropriate solution for recovery.
- Encourage relaxation – At high-stress periods, such as during exams, organise relaxation sessions for students and staff to attend. Not only does this encourage students and staff to acknowledge that they may be feeling stressed, anxious or uncomfortable, but it also normalises its acknowledgement and encourages taking time to care for your mental wellbeing.
- Teach awareness – A large part of dealing well with mental health problems includes being able to recognise it. Encouraging registration tutors to conduct 5 minutes of mindfulness each morning or including mental health awareness in your curriculum can help students and staff to manage their mental health effectively.
- Encourage socialising – Let students be social with each other – schedule in some time each week where they can work in groups and talk to students they perhaps wouldn’t normally mix with.
- Organise activities – Extracurricular activities and student societies provide students with new skills, hobbies and an opportunity to meet new friends and socialise outside of class, all of which is beneficial for mental health. Organise opportunities for students to learn about the extracurricular activities and the student societies available, with information on how they can get involved. New skills can also help students feel a sense of self-worth as they learn something new, or find something they enjoy.
- Clamp down on bullying – Every educational establishment should have a policy for anti-bullying and harassment, and by making this clear to students, parents and staff you can help other identify it an deter others from doing it.
- Promote activity and exercise – as well as releasing endorphins, which boost feelings of wellbeing, activity and exercise and help students to set small goals and work towards achieving them, which is a great way to boost self-esteem.
Make it easier for yourself
The extra work that goes into protecting your staff and students from mental health problems can be alleviated somewhat by managing it as you would other areas of health and safety. Use technological systems to help you to schedule training, organise events and delegate tasks to other team members.
You can ensure surveys and student feedback methods are carried out regularly by scheduling them in a similar way to gas safety inspections and fire alarm tests. Use a similar method to incident reporting for the reporting of mental-health related incidents, such as panic attacks, break-downs, or other causes for concern.
Using similar management procedures to your usual health and safety management can help to integrate your work towards improving mental health and safety in schools, colleges and universities into your operations.
Find out more about how Notify can help organisations in the Education sector.