Mental health first aid training is vital in education, now more than ever

By Susanna Cirulli

As children start to go back to school, the safeguarding of their mental health, particularly in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is of the utmost importance.

Before COVID-19, child mental health was in crisis. Although discussions around mental health and wellbeing are gradually becoming more open, the crisis is growing exponentially in the UK. Estimates show that mental health is the second-largest cause of burden of disease in England, with 20% of adolescents experiencing a mental health problem in any given year.

In 2017, the Department of Health and Social Care funded survey the Mental Health of Children and Young People in England identified increased levels of low wellbeing in children in England when compared to statistics from 1999 and 2004. It found that one in eight (12.8%) 5-19-year olds and one in seven (14.4%) 11-16-year olds had a mental health condition. 

Emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression accounted for 9% of the conditions in 11-16-year olds. In addition, young people who identified as LGBTQ were 34.9% more likely to have a mental health condition than their heterosexual peers. 

Rising reports of children and adolescents struggling with their mental health have also been acknowledged by teachers who have described feeling helpless in the face of what some describe as an ‘epidemic’. 83% of 8,600 school leaders surveyed said they had witnessed an increase in poor mental health amongst the pupils in their care. 

Impact of COVID-19 on mental health 

Against the backdrop of a worrying decline in children’s wellbeing, experts have expressed concern regarding the impact of COVID-19 for child and adolescent mental health. Although it is too early to understand the full extent of the consequences, the widespread changes to daily life will likely be detrimental for children’s mental health, particularly for disadvantaged children, those with additional needs and disabilities and children who were already previously struggling with their mental health.

Children’s lives across the country and the world have been disrupted in a variety of ways as a result of the pandemic: isolation and loss of routine, increased levels of worry and anxiety, grief, trauma and abuse can all harm a child’s psychological well-being, as well as exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions.

As noted by the BBC, many children will have spent more than 20 consecutive weeks out of school during a critical period of their development. As the restrictions lift and children start to go back to school, preparation to tackle the anticipated rise in mental health needs is of the utmost importance.  

Benefits of mental health first aid training

In June 2017, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England launched the Youth MHFA in Schools programme, funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. The programme was initiated to enable one member of staff from any state secondary school in England to attend a one-day Youth MHFA course for free. 

The course provides adults with skills and information necessary to be able to offer first aid and guidance when a young person is struggling with their mental health. They receive the tools to help open up meaningful conversations around mental health and provide the ability to create supportive and healthy environments. MHFA courses also give adults the resources and skills to look after their own mental health. Ultimately these skills can save lives.

The MHFA England 2018 summary report showed that 1,537 schools had taken part in the Youth MHFA Schools programme and a total of 2,175 school staff across England received training as a result. School staff who participated saw a direct increase in not only their average mental health knowledge but also their confidence to discuss mental health. 

The provision of MHFA training is of great benefit to society, especially in the education sector, as it prepares teachers and staff to spot the signs of poor mental health before it is too late.

More teachers should be trained in MHFA

Although at present referral rates have plummeted, it is likely that in the coming months the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) will receive an increase in referrals for children whose mental health issues have been triggered or worsened by COVID-19. The additional pressure on a service that was previously under strain will see long waiting lists both to be seen and for specialist therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy, making it even more difficult for young people to access NHS support. 

Charities such as The Children’s Society and Young Minds UK have identified that once the immediate effects of the pandemic are over, schools and professionals will need the help of the Department of Health and Social care to support struggling children and adolescents. The campaign #BeyondTomorrow created by Young Minds UK directly calls upon the government to take action so that the pandemic does not have a long-term impact on young people’s mental health. 

The 2017 Youth MHFA in Schools programme was a step in the right direction, however having only one teacher that is MHFA trained, particularly after COVID-19, will not be enough. On the aforementioned basis that 20% of adolescents experience a mental health problem in any given year, at least six students in a class size of 30 will struggle with their mental wellbeing. This is not to mention that this proportion is expected to increase as a result of COVID-19. 

To prepare for the increased pastoral support that children and adolescents will need after this pandemic, teachers and staff members would benefit from MHFA training. Teachers would be able to not only feel more prepared to support students and staff members struggling, but also provide an additional point of support against the backdrop of an overstretched Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. 

Today, the leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 10-34 in England is suicide. In the face of a looming mental health crisis, the government should consider extending the Every Mind Matters campaign, to physical training for teachers who will find themselves on the front line.

If you are affected by the content discussed in this article, Samaritans can be contacted for free on their 24-hour helpline at 116 123. The mental health charity Mind are also available at 0300 123 3393 or at 

Link to the #BeyondTomorrow petition: