One mental health first aider per school is not enough

I welcomed Theresa May’s announcement on Monday in which she said “every secondary school in the country [is] to be offered mental health first aid training”. MHFA England has campaigned for many years to get school staff trained in Mental Health First Aid and are thrilled that there will be at least one Mental Health First Aider in each secondary school.

But it doesn’t go far enough. Every single teacher, as part of their teacher training course, should be trained in Mental Health First Aid.

Poppy Jaman, CEO of MHFA England, said:

Mental ill health in young people is a growing health concern, with half of all lifetime cases of mental health issues starting by the age of 14.

There is a bespoke MHFA England course called Youth Mental Health First Aid which could be modified for teacher training. A short course could change a young person’s life.

A teacher overseeing a class of 30+ pupils needs to have the skills to recognise early warning signs of mental ill-health. One first aider per school can help in moments of crisis, but cannot possibly pick up all the mental health warning signs within the school population. A large part of the MHFA course is in learning about various mental health problems (such as stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide ideation, psychosis) and how to intervene early on.

I advocate that every primary and secondary school teacher needs training in spotting the signs of mental ill health in their pupils. Mental Health First Aid teaches what to do when there is evidence of mental ill health. This ranges from calling 999 if there is immediate risk to health; referring the pupil to a CAMHS team or GP; dealing with panic attacks; talking through options with a pupil, etc.

If every teacher training course had a Mental Health First Aid component, then teachers would have the skills and confidence to get involved. Too often mental health has to deteriorate before treatment is offered. Too often there is a mental health crisis and people stand by and do nothing, unsure of what to do and hoping it will pass on its own.

We have to get involved. We have to support our young people. We need a Mental Health First Aider in every classroom.

* Kirsten Johnson is Thursday editor for Lib Dem Voice. She is an Oxfordshire County Councillor and a member of the Federal International Relations Committee.