Designated mental health leads: What should this new role look like?

Written by: Sam Preston | Published:
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The government wants every school to have a designated mental health lead in place by 2025 and has announced funding to support training from next year. In light of the pandemic, many schools will want to act sooner. Sam Preston looks at the attributes of this key role


Did you cope, thrive, or shine during lockdown? There can be no doubt that the entire nation’s mental health took a knock as lives and routines were increasingly restricted.

However, it took this global pandemic to catalyse a positive change, breaking the silence and taboo surrounding mental illness.

The government is working on a funding allocation in order to train a Designated Mental Health Lead (DMHL) in every educational setting in England by 2025. The aim is to drive the cultural transformation, early intervention and support strategies required for students experiencing poor mental health to help them cope and succeed.


The DMHL role: Where are we now?

The DMHL was first mooted 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 (DfE) and Department of Health and Social Care (2018). 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.”

Progress is being made on the Mental Health Support Teams. Fifty-nine were set up in March 2020, and earlier this year the DfE said that by April 2023 around 400 such teams will be in place.

And after halting the mental health lead training in light of the pandemic, the DfE had finally announced the first tranche of funding (£9.5m) to help train “thousands” of DMHLs. Up to 7,800 schools and colleges in England will be offered funding to train a “senior mental health lead from their staff in the next academic year” (DfE, 2021).

While the DMHL role is not mandatory, the DfE has pledged to offer training for a lead in every school by 2025. Its consultation response states: “We want every school and college to have a designated lead in mental health by 2025. The designated lead will be a trained member of staff who is responsible for the school’s approach to mental health.”

In its Green Paper response, the DfE said that the DMHL 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/college 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.


A fresh perspective for schools

The DMHL role ensures that the safeguarding of students’ emotional wellbeing is a priority and equally as important as protecting their physical health.

It will bring fresh perspectives to the table, acknowledging and tackling mental health difficulties with the same vigour and commitment applied to improving academic performance.

Putting mental health at the heart of the school experience is crucial. Figures from the NHS suggest that 14 per cent of primary school children now have a probable mental health condition (NHS, 2020). And the pandemic will have exacerbated problems for many young sufferers.

According to a survey by YoungMinds in January 2021, 67 per cent of young people with mental health problems believe that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.

The feelings of fear, shame and guilt associated with mental illness, can have the same psychological effects as those associated with abuse or trauma.

All professionals working with children and young people have a role to play to help improve mental health. And as educators, we know that intervention is most successful when signs of mental illness are spotted early.

However, reduced budgets and finite resources have made this a tough task. The new DMHL role will enable schools to put the much-needed protocols in place to promote good mental wellbeing as well as recognising and effectively supporting pupils when difficulties are suspected or known.

Ultimately, it is important for all staff to feel confident in undertaking their duty of care and this especially applies to safeguarding the mental health and wellbeing of pupils.

Staff in educational settings are not expected to be mental health professionals and they should never attempt to make a diagnosis of a mental health problem. However, due to their frequency of contact with children they are well placed to identify behaviours presenting as worrying or identify children who may be at risk of developing mental health issues.

Crucially, the DMHL role is focused on facilitating best practice for identifying and seeking the right therapeutic intervention for individuals, rather than simple knowledge-sharing. So, what values and expertise should your DMHL offer?


The identification of issues

A core challenge is identifying children with possible mental health problems. The DMHL should bring a thorough and up-to-date understanding of the identification and measurement tools schools employ in order to identify mental illness in its infancy. Knowledge surrounding adverse childhood experiences and how these might interlink with mental wellbeing is also crucial.


Identifying groups at higher risk

Each DMHL should be acutely aware of the groups known to be at a higher risk of developing mental health difficulties and ensure both policy and practice is robust in supporting them.

For example, students with SEND are at high risk of experiencing mental health difficulties. Appointed DMHLs will work collaboratively with their designated safeguarding leads and SENCOs to ensure mental health and wellbeing needs are identified and addressed. Other such at-risk groups include:

  • Looked-after and adopted children.
  • Children in Need.
  • Children with a social worker.
  • Children in care or who have left care.
  • Children affected by socio-economic disadvantage.
  • Those exposed to thematic and/or contextual safeguarding risks, e.g. child sexual exploitation, child criminal exploitation, county lines, female genital mutilation.


Support and collaboration

Providing support and collaborative working will be crucial. The DMHL will devise and lead on a joined-up strategy and approach inside school and extend and communicate this to parents/carers and the local healthcare system. This includes developing specific classroom support as well as school-based mental health or therapeutic support.


Culture and evidence

Developing a positive mental health culture takes time. A DMHL will help create a culture that frees the whole school community to value mental health in the same way as physical health, encouraging everyone to care for their own mental health and that of others.

Culture will be underpinned by a therapeutic intervention approach. Not simply intervening as an issue arises, the DMHL will champion the latest mental health and wellbeing knowledge, training and approaches and become the vital link between the school, families and the wider education and healthcare system.

Family links are hugely important to help teachers better understand the lives students have at home. The DMHL will help parents and carers seeking answers to questions about mental health and mental illness so they can be better prepared to support their children at home.

Most importantly, the DMHL’s practice must be guided by research and high-quality training undertaken to tailor provision appropriately. Therefore, if DMHLs are to lead the way, schools must invest in their CPD and on-going support. The DfE has said that because of the nature of the role, the training must be “substantial and appropriately long-term – it should provide both knowledge and a basis for reflective practice” (DfE, 2018).


Next steps

So, with a better understanding of the role and skillset required, what are the next steps? Should the appointment come from within, or should headteachers look externally for the right candidate? This decision will be different for every school, influenced by budgetary constraints and existing skills within the staff team. A great place to start is to evaluate the skillsets of staff already working in relevant areas and begin identifying strengths and missing gaps.

This new role is an exciting development for the education sector, allowing schools to take a lead in the safeguarding of young people’s mental wellbeing.

Although the government has set a target of 2025, now is the time for every school to set out the skillsets for this new role and to support staff to develop the attributes needed to help build an inclusive mental health and wellbeing culture that nurtures and helps every student to thrive.


Further information & resources

  • DfE & DHSC: Government Response to the Consultation on Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: a Green Paper and Next Steps, July 2018: http://bit.ly/2nOHFel
  • DfE & DHSC: Consultation outcome: Quick read: Transforming children and young people's mental health provision, July 2018: https://bit.ly/3gvkjEA
  • DfE: Press release: Schools and colleges to benefit from boost in expert mental health support, May 2021: https://bit.ly/3ezMqRs
  • NHS Digital: Mental health of children and young people in England, 2020: Wave 1 follow up to the 2017 survey, October 2020: https://bit.ly/3myohMp


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