A six-step guide for new mental health leads

Written by: Kelly Hannaghan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The emerging role of designated or senior mental health lead in schools has become even more vital in light of the impact of the pandemic. Wellbeing expert Kelly Hannaghan discusses effective practice for those taking on this new position and six steps for success


The government wants every school to have a designated or senior mental health lead (SMHL) by 2025 (Headteacher Update, 2021). Many schools, some spurred on by the impact of the pandemic, already have such a role in place. But what does best practice look like? In this article, I consider the elements and strategies of good practice to help develop professionals taking on the emerging role of SMHL.


Why wellbeing matters

Happy pupils learn well. The same can be said for teachers – teachers who live well, teach well. This is why wellbeing matters, it determines life and learning outcomes. When I visit schools, I can ascertain a lot about the culture of wellbeing by the feeling I get when I walk through the gates:

  • Is it a welcoming environment?
  • What is my greeting like from the office staff?
  • Does the physical space “shout out” that wellbeing is at the heart of the school?
  • Do the children and adults seem content, secure and engaged?

Half of lifetime mental illness starts by the age of 14 (Kessler et al, 2005). According to the National Children’s Bureau, in an average classroom:

  • Four children will have a clinically diagnosed mental health condition.
  • Seven will have been bullied.
  • Eight will have experienced severe physical violence, sexual abuse or neglect.

We know that specialist mental health and social care services are overstretched and underfunded, therefore this support often falls on the school’s shoulders to deliver.

These concerns have an impact on staff wellbeing too. If we look at the recent Teacher Wellbeing Index (Education Support, 2020), we can see that the pandemic has had a negative impact on educators’ mental health and wellbeing: 75 per cent of all education staff have faced physical or mental wellbeing issues in the last two years because of their work and 53 per cent have considered quitting as a result; almost one in five said they had experienced panic attacks and more than half had suffered from insomnia and difficulty sleeping.

Early intervention and a whole school approach can be highly effective in improving wellbeing and reducing the impact of mental health problems. It is vital that we increase awareness of the importance of promoting children’s emotional wellbeing and how this connects to learning outcomes. We need to inspire education settings to appropriately measure wellbeing for staff and pupils and provide high-quality preventative and early intervention. Feedback is vital to explore satisfaction of the school experience, alongside purposeful policies for wellbeing.


Six steps for success
1, Unpicking government guidelines

The government wants every school to have a SMHL in place by 2025 and has begun to fund training to support this goal. The role of SMHL was first highlighted in the 2017 Green Paper, Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision, and in the subsequent consultation response from the Department for Education and Department of Health and Social Care (DfE & DHSC, 2018). The two core proposals were:

  • “To incentivise and support all schools and colleges to identify and train a designated senior lead for mental health with a new offer of training to help leads and staff to deliver whole school approaches to promoting better mental health.”
  • “To fund new Mental Health Support Teams, including supervision by NHS children and young people’s mental health staff, to provide specific extra capacity for early intervention and on-going help.”

The DfE has announced that the first tranche of funding (£9.5m) has been secured to help train SMHLs in up to 7,800 schools and colleges in England. Take a look at the government’s announcements (DfE, 2021a, 2021b) and see what funding your school can access.


2, Finding the right person

In the Green Paper response (2018), the DfE said that the SMHL role should not be filled by a mental health professional but, at the same time, education staff should not be diagnosing mental health conditions or delivering mental health interventions: “The focus of the lead should be strategic, putting whole school approaches in place, ensuring a coordinated approach.” The duties outlined by the Green Paper response include to:

  • Oversee the help the school gives to pupils with mental health problems.
  • Help staff to spot pupils who show signs of mental health problems.
  • Offer advice to staff about mental health.
  • Refer children to specialist services.

Schools can decide who undertakes the role of SMHL and who gets the SMHL training, as every setting’s circumstances are different. It may be a member of the senior leadership team or if not, an appropriate member of staff who is empowered to develop and oversee your setting’s whole school approach.

For existing SMHLs this will be an opportunity to develop or refresh their knowledge and skills in specific priority areas, to obtain more advanced training, and gain a relevant qualification.

The desired skills of the SMHL

  • Experience of working with staff, children and families on a strategic level.
  • Up-to-date knowledge of best practice in young people’s mental health.
  • Experience of working with a range of professional organisations, including health and social care.
  • Excellent communication, organisation and interpersonal skills.
  • Experience of using evaluation tools and audit report-writing.
  • Experience of delivering mental health training to school staff.
  • Works effectively under pressure, particularly when dealing with sensitive situations.
  • Able to prioritise and plan to ensure completion of tasks while working to a high level of accuracy.


3, Understanding needs

A great starting point in the role of SMHL is to understand the needs of the school. Completing a whole school evaluation will help identify the gaps in provision and highlight focus areas of work. It is important to recognise that all schools are on different stages of their journey in creating the right climate for a positive wellbeing culture. It is vital to start from where people are, therefore listening to stakeholder voices can give vital insights into the journey ahead.

The Anna Freud Centre offers a great resource called “5 Steps to Mental Health and Wellbeing” which has a step-by-step guide to assessing and action-planning, including leading change, working together, understanding needs, promoting wellbeing, and supporting staff.

Elsewhere, there are a variety of measuring tools for both pupil and staff wellbeing (choices could be dependent on the school’s budget).
Schools may want to sign up for a recognised award for wellbeing in education. Optimus Education and the NCB offer the Wellbeing Award for Schools (WAS Award). This process helps schools identify needs through evaluation, goal-setting, developing strategies for wellbeing and measuring outcomes.

Leeds Beckett University offers the Mental Health Award for Schools through its Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools. This award recognises work to improve the resilience, emotional health intelligence, mental health and wellbeing of all members of the school community.


4, Cohesive collaborations

Collaborations are a great way to gain support in the role. Getting to know the services and agencies both within the school’s local area and nationally will certainly be a helpful resource when signposting for extra support. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) offer a wide range of resources and information, they also have front door call service where their duty workers can explore concerns with you and signpost you to next steps.

It is equally important to connect with other schools who are demonstrating outstanding practice for wellbeing. They will provide you with helpful advice. It is important to be an outward facing school and it can also be beneficial to partner up with other schools to share your good practice.


5, Sustaining strategies for flourishing futures

Schools are already having to make tough decisions about which services to cut and are not incentivised to direct resource towards wellbeing provision. Teachers are also feeling the pressure to meet pupil attainment targets and have reported feeling increasingly stressed, suffering from low levels of morale as a result. Teachers say they want to be able to promote the emotional wellbeing of their pupils, therefore regular training for mental health is vital in order to recognise and respond to needs.

Sharing vision statements for wellbeing with the whole school community ensures everyone is on the same page and helps release the stigma around talking about mental health. A great example can be found on the website of Lessness Heath Primary School in Kent.

Regularly update wellbeing policies and seek-out stakeholder voices and feedback too. And remember, strategies take priority when they are included in school development plans, form part of school priorities and are assessed at governor level.


6, Keeping well in the role

It is not the sole responsibility of SMHLs to hold the full care of pupils and staff struggling with mental health. There should be a clear referral process to health care professionals for appropriate specialist support and treatment. People who take up these roles often find that their own wellbeing comes as a cost, therefore it is vital that self-care is prioritised in order to effectively and safely fulfil the role of SMHL.


Ten more tips

In light of point six above, I shall leave you with 10 tips to safeguard your own wellbeing:

  1. Know your limits – it is okay not to be okay.
  2. Try the SHED Method – sleep, hydration, exercise and diet (Milne Rowe, 2018).
  3. Practise the NHS’ Five Steps to Mental Wellbeing (see online).
  4. Regularly connect with friends and family who do not work within the education system – it can be too easy to talk work all of the time.
  5. Try to take up exercise and hobbies that involve doing activities you enjoy.
  6. Ensure you have an outlet to talk about challenges within the role. Supervision (see Lawrence, 2020) and coaching can be particularly helpful.
  7. Have a least one work-free night in the week and one full weekend day where you don’t think about work – it is vital to switch off.
  8. Learn how to say no.
  9. Practise mindfulness and gratitude to reduce stress and improve wellbeing.
  10. Most importantly – don’t forget who you are. You are more than your role.


  • Kelly Hannaghan is a mental health and wellbeing consultant with The Education People.


Further information & resources

Further listening

Mental Health Event

  • Kelly Hannaghan is among the experts speaking at Headteacher Update’s online Pupil Mental Health event, which takes place on September 29 and 30. Her session will consider further how to embed the role of senior mental health lead in your primary school. For the full programme and details, visit www.schoolsmentalhealth.co.uk/programme


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