Schools Promoting a Culture of Positive Mental Health

Denise McKee, Senior Lecturer in Education, St Mary’s University College, Belfast

Children and young people’s mental health is very often a topic for debate in the media, and, recently, we have seen a reported rise in the number of cases of self-harm and suicide among young people. It is suggested that social media apps are to blame for this, but perhaps it is too easy for us to have a scapegoat. Although social media apps have a part to play in creating situations where a child’s mental health is compromised, they should not become the whipping boy for all of society’s ills.

denise-mckeeAccording to the World Health Organisation, neuropsychiatric conditions—such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and eating disorders—are among the most common causes of universal disability in young people. In addition, it is reported that three quarters of life-long mental health illnesses emerge between the mid-teens and mid-twenties, and one in ten children aged between five and sixteen years has a diagnosable mental health disorder (WHO). The most common of these are categorised as emotional, conduct and hyperkinetic disorders. These conditions include “phobias, anxiety, depression … defiant antisocial behaviour” and problems with  “inattention, impulsivity and overactivity” (Nagel, 2016, p. 7). Based on the above statistics, on average, a class could have three pupils with a diagnosable disorder, and, furthermore, there may be other pupils who are experiencing mental health difficulties who do not fall under a specific diagnosis but who are struggling to meet their full potential at school (Nagel, 2016).

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Teachers are often the first people to whom children agree to disclose a problem, and they are likely to be the first to recognise the changes in a child’s behaviour; however, for them to be proactive in supporting a pupil, it is important that they have an awareness of the risk factors which may result in a pupil developing a mental health problem. Nagel (2016) categorises three main sources of risk: issues directly related to the person—for example, the child’s personality type—learning difficulties, and physical illness. The family and wider environment are identified as an environmental factor, which includes family dysfunction, poverty and “chaotic parenting”. Major life events are identified as a second environmental factor, e.g., bereavement, parental divorce or the transition between primary and post-primary schools. Unfortunately, in many cases, the risks do not appear singly, and some children may experience a complex mix of factors triggering a heightened level of anxiety that can be difficult for them to manage appropriately within the boundaries of a classroom or school environment (Howard et al., 2017).

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Among the risk factors identified, the majority are beyond the child’s control and are a result of domestic difficulties. This is very apparent from the range of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) described in Felitti and Anda’s (1995) research. The ten categories used to identify ACEs include physical, sexual and verbal abuse; emotional or physical neglect; substance abuse among household members; adults in the household with mental health problems; domestic violence; imprisonment of adults in the household; parental abandonment or separation. It was found that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are very common: they occur between birth and eighteen years, and multiples of these traumatic experiences have been shown to have far­-reaching effects on children throughout the remainder of their lives. Indeed, they are “strong predictors of adult social functioning, well-being, health risks, disease and death” (Felitti and Anda, 2010).

It is recognised that childhood adversity can cause detrimental levels of stress that impact on brain development; for example, abuse and neglect have an effect on the part of the brain which controls levels of fear and anxiety. Furthermore, abuse alters the performance of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for our cognitive functions resulting in effects on our ability to reason, plan and think logically. Ultimately, such impacts can lead to behavioural and academic problems at school.

Teachers Need to Be Alert

Mental health disorders or problems do not appear overnight, and, apart from being aware of the risk factors, teachers also need to be alert to the signs of changes in conduct or mood, which may be the first indicators of the onset of a problem. Out-of-character confrontation and aggression in the classroom is probably the most noticeable behaviour change that may signal a pupil is experiencing severe anxiety or is recovering from a traumatic incident. Such acting out, although not desirable, if managed with empathy, can result in the pupil getting the attention and support he or she requires. However, not all changes in behaviour are communicated as strongly as by non-compliance and disruption. For example, within a secondary school environment, there may be a delay in a teacher noticing that a pupil has become withdrawn or lacks motivation, a possible indication of the beginning of depression. Also, a change in behaviour may be misinterpreted as a natural part of adolescent development (Howard et al., 2017) and therefore be taken less seriously. Young people may also conceal the mental problems they are experiencing. A pupil who is self-harming in response to negative feelings or stress is unlikely to show this to others. A child who is being abused may be afraid to disclose the abuse because of the control of the abuser. Likewise, a young person who is suffering from an eating disorder because of “an idealised body image” (Glazzard and Bostwick, 2018) may try to conceal his or her weight loss by avoiding PE lessons or wearing baggy clothes.

A Culture of Positive Mental Health

It would seem that there are many pitfalls which conspire to prevent a young person from receiving the help and support he or she requires, and there exist many risk factors which are beyond a school’s ability to control. Therefore, it is essential that schools adopt practices and strategies that enhance a young person’s resilience, enabling him or her to cope better with the challenges experienced (Nagel, 2016). First and foremost, all schools should promote a culture of positive mental health. This culture can be shown in a commitment to challenging all forms of discrimination, cherishing diversity, modelling respect and equality and offering genuine opportunities for young people to voice their opinions and have an input into whole-school development plans. It is recommended that in every school there is a designated senior leader who is responsible for the promotion of good mental health strategies and for ensuring that such strategies are embedded into the curriculum (Glazzard and Bostwick, 2018).

On an individual level, a pupil’s resilience in the face of adversity can be enhanced if he or she feels secure at school and can readily seek support from caring adults or other children in the school community. It is important that a pupil has goals to work towards and is involved in activities which develop a sense of self-efficacy. Furthermore, a pupil’s interpersonal skills should be developed and opportunities offered to encourage the pupil to problem solve with others (Nagel, 2016). Mental health disorders and problems are complex and challenging. Although social media apps have a part to play in creating situations where a child’s mental health is compromised, they should not become the whipping boy for all of society’s ills. If a child’s self-worth is diminished because of problems they are experiencing at home, then it is not surprising that he or she is vulnerable to unhealthy suggestions or practices on social media. Furthermore, if a child feels insecure, unsupported and worthless at school, the strength of character required to disregard offensive material on social media apps may be severely diminished. Therefore, it is the responsibility of adults to ensure that children’s mental health is protected, and it is the responsibility of schools to create safe, secure, social environments where children develop and enjoy a culture of positive mental health.


  • Felitti V.J., Anda R.F. 2010. “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health, Well-being, Social Function, and Health Care.” In The Effects of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease: the Hidden Epidemic, edited by R.A. Lanius, E. Vermetten, C. Pain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 77-87.
  • Glazzard, J. and Bostwick, R. 2018. Positive Mental Health a Whole School Approach. St Albans: Critical Publishing.
  • Howard, C., Burton, M., Levermore, D., Barell, R. 2017. Children’s Mental Health and Emotional Well-being in Primary Schools. London: SAGE.
  • Nagel, Paula. 2016. Mental Health Matters: A Practical Guide to Identifying and Understanding Mental Health Issues in Primary Schools.. London: Bloomsbury.
  • WHO. (2018) Child and Adolescent Mental Health. Accessed 12/8/19.