A partnership scheme at Thurston Community College – one of the only schools in the country to appoint a full-time expert to support students with mental health issues – has been hailed a success with symptoms of anxiety and depression dropping significantly among its student body.
Eighty-one percent of students who had identified difficulties with anxiety or depression have seen their symptoms improve over the past 18 months, and they reported increased confidence and better engagement with the college in terms of attendance and learning.
In January 2017, Dr Beth Mosley – a Norfolk and Suffolk NHS FT (NSFT) clinical psychologist – was appointed to take up the role at Thurston after the college approached the trust to ask how mental health support could be best offered to its 1,750 students.
Although some schools in England do have some psychological support hours on offer, Thurston is one of the very few to invest in a full-time psychologist.
The young people also described their preference for receiving this type of specialist support within their college rather than in a local specialist service; and parents praised the scheme, valuing how much more accessible it was.
Staff have reported positive benefits too, and the college is reporting that since its inception 18 months ago, the scheme has had a significant, positive impact across the college community.
Helen Wilson, Principal at Thurston Community College, said: “We are proud to be a school which is at the forefront of providing mental health support to our students and staff in this way, and I would love to see more schools able to do this.
“Since Dr Mosley joined us, we have already made a difference to the lives of our students. My colleagues certainly feel more aware of the issues and signs that a problem may be emerging, and are more confident in dealing with the students who may need additional mental health support. Of course, they can also refer our young people to Beth for extra expertise when needed.”
Dr Mosley has been offering direct face-to-face sessions to students in the college, including cognitive behavioural therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy groups, for those who have identified metal health concerns.
For those who cannot safely be supported within the college, she has been supporting early and effective referrals into other NSFT support services for conditions such as eating disorders, ADHD and psychosis.
And for the wider student body, she has been reviewing the PHSCE programme to ensure it offers good information to support mental health resilience and emotional wellbeing.
“We teach students about physical health; it is equally important that we also teach them about mental health, especially as we know the two are so interconnected,” said Dr Mosley.
She also offers support to teachers and other staff within the college in identifying mental health or wellbeing issues, as well as advice on how best to help a young person with mental health concerns.
As a result, staff at the school also report more confidence in developing students’ skills in the area of mental health and wellbeing, and feel they play a bigger part in helping students in this area (Whole Staff Survey 2018).
Staff also report less stress at work and feel better able to cope with the pressures of that work: a focus which, Miss Wilson said, would be developed further in the next school year.
A Young Persons Mental Health working group was setup in June by Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill and has begun to look at how this scheme might benefit other schools and colleges.
In that time, the group leaders have met with Minister for Mental Health and Inequalities, Jackie Doyle Price MP to discuss Suffolk leading the way nationally.
Ms Churchill said: “I was delighted to learn about the positive impact this has made to students at Thurston Community College and beyond.
Mental health issues, especially among young people, are of huge importance and can put a real strain on learning and on the wellbeing of pupils and parents.
Only by bringing together our health and education services can we give this the priority it needs.
Having assembled this working group over the past few months, I am pleased by the steps taken so far.
Going forward, I hope these findings provide a foundation to deliver greater support for students and schools across Suffolk.”
Principal Miss Wilson explained that Thurston Community College did not necessarily have any more or any fewer mental health problems among its student body than you would see in any average high school.
“But I believe we all have a responsibility to support our students in every way we can. Taking care of mental wellbeing is an essential feature of supporting our students to make the most of every learning opportunity, so they leave Thurston Community College with self-belief and aspiration to accomplish their dreams.
“We understand that more and more young people are dealing with mental health issues due to myriad social pressures, some of which can be in more sharp focus when they are within a school environment among their peers.
“We want to encourage our students to feel comfortable about opening up and believe very strongly that this culture of openness helps with their educational success, as well as offering young people a much greater chance of leading a fulfilled life as a successful adult,” she added.
Nationally, there has been a sharp rise in reported levels of anxiety and stress in school aged children and there are an estimated three children in every classroom who have an active mental health condition. One in four school aged children is experiencing emotional distress at any time, rates of self-harm are increasing and both locally and nationally referrals to services for eating disorders are seeing a year-on-year increase.
Dr Mosley explained that these figures can be due to a range of issues facing young people from exam pressures to cyber-bullying, issues with self-esteem and body image, or worries about finding a job when they finish their education.
Bringing many years of experience of working in children’s mental health, she is employed by NSFT, and her role is funded by the college. She has developed a whole-college approach to mental health and emotional wellbeing at Thurston.
“School is often the hub of a child’s life,” she said. “We therefore have a golden opportunity to support young people to develop resilience and emotional literacy, as well as identify difficulties early on. If all schools were equipped to invest in this approach, imagine the impact.
“By creating an environment where staff are aware of the risk factors for young people developing mental health difficulties and have the confidence to respond appropriately, we are boosting the protective factors that will lead to better outcomes for these children as well as ensuring they get the right help at the right time.
“As individuals, to be able to survive and thrive we have to recognise problems and develop simple solutions that are easy to put in place to help us deal with things. What better environment to start to make people aware of the potential problems and to begin to learn how to deal with them in a positive way than within a school?”
Nicki Bramford, Operational Manager within NSFT’s Children, Families and Young People’s services, said: “NSFT is committed to doing everything it can to support young people and to help safeguard their mental wellbeing so that they can enjoy a better quality of life.
“Together with Jo Churchill MP, we are working with several schools across Norfolk and Suffolk on a range of innovative projects to help us achieve this and I am delighted that Thurston is leading the way by employing Beth. She has been working closely with both pupils and staff to safeguard their mental health and offer additional help, or signposting to NSFT’s other services, wherever necessary.
“Encouraging students to talk openly about mental health is vital and will make sure they feel comfortable if they do ever need extra support.”
Dr Mosley reported her findings to other schools in the county and local MP Jo Churchill at a special roundtable event held at West Suffolk College on Friday (July 20).
Published in the East Anglian Daily Times