Senior Mental Health Lead: How to have an impact

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
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If you are new to the role of mental health lead, or you would like to make sure that your role really makes a difference next year, Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers a few simple ideas to help you to maximise your impact

Why does this role matter to you?

While many schools and colleges now have a mental health lead or the equivalent, this is still a new and evolving role for many and the parameters are not always clearly defined. This is great news as it can mean you are in the position of defining the role and deciding what the focus will be, but it can also bring the challenge of uncertainty about what you should be doing, when, with recourse to whom and so on.

Taking time to consider and share why you are doing the role, what “success” would look like, and what you think is realistic in terms of expectations will help to focus your thoughts and actions right from the start.

Consider the following:

  • Who are you here to help? Students, staff, families?
  • What inspired you to take on the role; what strengths and experience do you bring?
  • What is currently working well that you could build on?
  • Is there anything wrong – broken – in need of change?
  • Ask yourself: In 12 months’ time, what do I hope to have achieved?

Identify allies, ears and naysayers

This is a big job and, as one of the key things you will often be looking to do is to have an impact on the culture and ethos of your setting, it is not a job that can be done alone.

Be accepting of help and ask for people to support you in your role. Within every staff team and wider community there will be people who are passionate about mental health who may be willing to support you with their time, suggestions or expertise. If you don’t ask, you won’t get.

There will also be those who do not value this role – identify them early to make sure that they do not trip you up and, instead of working against them, it can help to consider what their aims are and whether there is anything your work will do to support them in their aims/role. There is often more synergy than people realise and this can begin to bring more reluctant colleagues on board.

Consider the following:

  • Who has got your back and who would be happy to pitch in?
  • Are there practical jobs you can give to people who are passionate and keen to help?
  • Who can help you to ensure that even the quietest voices are heard?
  • How can you help naysayers achieve their aims?
  • Could you identify a lead governor for mental health and get them involved.
  • Building relationships: Get to know your SENCO, designated safeguarding lead and learning support staff.
  • Ask yourself: Who could I approach tomorrow to support me in my role?

Do a few things well

One of the biggest mistakes that mental health leads make is trying to do “all the things”. This is a laudable aim, but is likely to end in things half-done and you run ragged.

Instead, a useful first step is to really take stock of the situation and decide where you should focus your energies. You could use the simple audit I put together to help you with this (see further information).

Some schools and colleges find that using a framework like the Schools Mental Health Award (Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools) can be a very helpful vehicle for prioritising their thinking and actions.

You could:

  • Identify a visible quick win – this will bolster your confidence and get things going.
  • Decide a long-term focus too – something gnarly that may take time; make a plan and make a start.
  • Work out what you definitely will not do – write a “to-don’t” list.
  • Budget your time and set regular review points to celebrate success and decide your next focus.
  • Ask yourself: What could you do simply and quickly that will make a difference and be seen?

Take the approach of a researcher

Time and money are likely to be two things you simply do not have enough of, so it is hugely important to ensure that what resources you do have are not wasted. This means having a clear idea about why you are doing things, what you hope to achieve and how you will know if you succeeded.

Do not assume that just because things have been done a certain way, that they should continue to be done that way and beware the snake oil sellers!

Everyone will want to sell you an intervention or measure or resource. Question everything. Measure impact. Do more of what is working if you can, and if something is not working be brave enough to stop.

Consider the following:

  • What would success look like? Can you quantify/measure it?
  • Validated measures are great, so long as they measure what you want them to.
  • How will you know if something’s not working? When will you call time?
  • How can you enable others to learn from what is working and what is not?
  • Ask yourself: Is there a resource or intervention currently in place that I should re-examine?

Look after your own mental health first

You have an important role in terms of promoting the mental health and wellbeing of the children and adults within your community, but take care to ensure that this does not come at the cost of your own mental health.

Consider the following:

  • Who’s got your back?
  • Do you have time to dedicate to this role? If not, why not? How could this be addressed?
  • Can you plan ahead for crunch points?
  • What is worrying you – who might be able to help and how?


Remember to make the role your own. Consider what your children, your staff and your local community most need and make this a driving force as you develop in the role.

Make sure too to keep an eye out for Department for Education funded training for senior mental health leads. While the detail is still being worked out, schools should be able to claim about £1,200 for training and cover to support them in their role from a range of quality-assured, approved providers from the autumn term.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. You can contact Pooky via and for her previous articles in Headteacher Update, visit

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