“I know how to hug, does that mean I have to start to teach ‘hugging’ or whatever you are doing?”, John asked jokingly. He is a young, conscientious, caring teacher who is open to new ideas, but talk of a mental-health programme within the school scared him. It wasn’t that he was against it, in fact he was very supportive, but his response summed up a lot of concerns for teachers. “What will this require of me? Is this not someone else’s job? I haven’t been trained in this and what if I get it wrong — surely this is serious?” Put bluntly: “what if someone dies because of me?”

At the Creating a Listening School conference (September 2016), founder of Jigsaw, Tony Bates quoted Victor Hugo in stating that “nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come”. Asking people to support building up students’ positive mental-health and resilience is like pushing an open door and yet, despite all this positivity, principals, deputy principals and teachers continue to express a sense of fear. Many professionals working with the students within the school seem to be fearful of what is involved, unsure of what is required of them, and ultimately uncertain about how to start. The overwhelming sense is that they are ill-equipped to cope with the distress being experienced among the student body.

A recent Twitter debate on EdChatIE by Irish teachers (20th March 2017) on mental-health in schools illustrated this fear with some contributors wondering if all this was “mission creep”, and expressing worry that they would have to “fix issues way beyond our remit?” There was also a sense that “slotting [mental-health education] in as a subject” was not a lasting solution, but rather to “make every child feel cared for everyday” and building “consistent, caring relationships and a safe environment. Not amateur psychology class”. Anecdotally, these views would seem to be widespread. Yet there is a willingness among teachers and schools. The awareness that the students’ emotional wellbeing needs to be addressed would appear not to have been matched by an available set of practical and implementable measures. Instead of clear pathways to begin the process to implement change, broad aspirational ‘actions’ have been provided. Who would not consider developing safe environments that foster a sense of belonging and connectedness (Well-Being in Post-Primary Schools, 2013) to be something teachers and educators wish to achieve?

There is evidence to say that a whole-school approach to student well-being not only enhances mental-health and resilience but also promotes pro-social behaviour, pupil engagement, and academic learning (Roffey, 2015; Noble, McGrath, Roffey and Rowling, 2008). These are all outcomes a school should wish for, but how can we create a whole-school approach that does not add to the sense of fear?

1. Outline of programme.

What a whole-school and embedded approach to the provision of positive mental-health seeks to do is to work with the existing structures within the school and develop the capacity of those working directly with the students as well as with the students themselves. Rather than providing box-ticking interventions that often leave no lasting change (apart, perhaps, from another flag), embedding positive mental-health requires sustained engagement with all the stake-holders within the school and its wider community. Mental-health starts with the staff who are the people who will implement any changes. 80% of teachers in the UK report experiencing stress, anxiety and depression at work, with over 50% feeling ‘severely’ stressed (NUT, 2013). Reducing this teacher stress and providing opportunities for staff to model good behaviour is a key part of a whole-school programme. Involving all the stake-holders, along with the students will ensure a higher chance of long- term and sustainable effects (Browne, Gafni, Roberts, Byrne & Majumdar, 2004).

Another important point is that many of the positive strategies and interventions needed for a healthy school are probably already in existence or being employed by teachers, staff, parents and students. The aim of any programme is to simply add, develop and expand the coordination of those areas in which the positive work is already taking place; not to add another ‘whole-school planning initiative’. Cluster-groups being formed between key people in schools to share resources, mindfulness classes being provided for staff and students, talks from outside speakers on how to identify and manage anxiety within the student body and the staff, and many other initiatives are taking place across the country. Much of the best and most innovative initiatives are being performed by the same teachers and management who express such fear and worry.

The process of implementing any programme is broken into four areas. The first focuses on raising the awareness of, and sharing information relating to, issues relating to positive mental-health. The second focuses on ensuring that this information is successfully received. Establishing efficient and clear channels of communication between and among the stake-holders involved in mental-health provision is vital to the success of any programme. Inefficient communication is often at the heart of poor mental-health and, like in any environment, the lack of communication can engender a sense of isolation, frustration and a reluctance to change. The third focus is on building the capacity and sense of efficacy within the student, staff and parent bodies. Through raising the awareness of issues, delivering this information through clear and efficient channels of communication, each group will develop increased capacity to identify and manage issues of mental-health. This capacity will therefore lead to the fourth focus- increasing a sense of empowerment, involvement and a sense of belonging.

2. Awareness raising and information sharing.

There are several ways in which awareness raising can help promote mental-health. To establish a shared understanding of the language around positive mental-health and emotional well-being, interventions that increase knowledge about identifying and managing anxiety must be delivered. There are a many resources available such as the Aware’s Beat the Blues campaign that introduces fourth or fifth years to the ‘Coping Triangle’, or the Friends for Life- Youth programme for first to third year, The .B Mindfulness for Schools Programme, or the Irish programme On My Own Two Feet to name just four, provide students with an accessible language to identify and manage anxiety.

A key component of awareness raising is imparting a good knowledge of the supports that exist for young people. The support structures within each school can differ (the Guidance Counsellor, Year Head, Class Tutor, Form Teacher etc.), so providing a clear understanding of where the student can go to is vital to allow the student access the appropriate supports when they are required. Providing clear information on the graduated pathways, processes and systems of support for students can assist in a more efficient support structure (and ultimately reduce the long queues outside the Guidance Counsellor). Additionally, parental understanding of the roles of each staff-member within the student support team allows issues of emotional well-being to be dealt with expediently by the appropriately trained person in the school. Staff can also provide an outline and awareness to parents of typical periods of anxiety and stress within the school year. Sometimes, simply knowing who and when to contact, and what is the most appropriate method of communication can reduce anxiety among students, parents and staff.

This is not limited to the supports within the school. Repeated, clear, and conspicuous sharing of information about external services will also ensure that the students have a good knowledge of what is available to them. Jigsaw provides a self-referring adolescent mental-health service almost nationwide, while the ISPCC, Aware, Pieta House, Bodywhys and many others provide different types of supports. Knowing where and how to access supports should be not only for students, but a good knowledge of the most appropriate supports available to adolescent and adults should be known by teachers and parents also.

Not all forms of awareness raising need to be directly about mental-health. Other forms of information sharing that can have an indirect impact on positive mental-health include guidance on the appropriate use of social media or the anti-bullying inputs available within the SPHE curriculum for example. These can provide an understanding of where threats to positive mental-health exist and also allow for an open discussion to be had on the ways to best manage these threats.

Research indicates that interventions that raise awareness of the diversity within the school can also improve the overall mental-health of the school. The National Healthy School Programme in the UK (2006) found that a key aspect of mental-health and well-being within the school is the practice around diversity and the challenging of stigma or prejudice around ability, disability, gender, race, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status. Raising awareness and ‘normalising’ additional needs such as ASD, ADHD, DCD, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Downs Syndrome, etc. can reduce stigma that might exist within the student.

Providing information and building capacity in this area is also important for staff. Research in England has found that programmes to reduce any stigma around mental-health were limited by teacher anxiety who believed they lacked the necessary expertise and were worried that it was beyond their remit (Cooke, King & Greenwood, 2016). Providing information about additional needs, offering CPD and training that focuses on teaching methodologies best suited to students with additional needs, and making explicit the boundaries that all students and staff should maintain at all times, can alleviate potential teacher anxiety. Simple strategies such as utilising annual awareness days or using books and films can facilitate safe spaces within which to constructively discuss issues that might otherwise cause fear and uncertainty for students, staff and parents.

3. Efficient Communication

For information to be successfully imparted, there is a need to ensure clear and efficient channels of communication to be developed. In a recent survey of a Dublin school 78% of teachers considered communication as the single biggest obstacle for positive mental- health. There are a number of ways that effective communication between the students, staff and parents can impact positively on mental-health within the school. For the school to successfully impart and disseminate the correct information, and thus raise awareness, about any area of mental-health, it is important that this is communicating clearly. Some schools have emails, phone numbers, notice-boards, and texts to relay information between staff and to parents. Making the channels of communication transparent, consistent and clear will reduce anxiety, promote information sharing, help build capacity, and develop a feeling of being heard.

As outlined above, fear is a core barrier to mental-health provision, the management’s ability to communicate the vision and programme in a way that brings people with them is vital to its success. Management, as the change-makers, need to articulate the “knowledge of the why of change, namely moral purpose” (Fullan, Cuttress, & Kilcher, 2005). Communicating how to build capacity, recognising the process of change and pre-empting the challenges that it will create, and encouraging others within the school to take ownership of the process, needs to be done clearly and consistently if it is to allay the fears of the staff and ensure its successful delivery.

It is also important for all stake-holders to articulate and communicate the importance of positive student mental-health. Management need to be seen to provide Fullan’s “moral purpose” and to consistently place it at the centre of its work. Noble et al. (2008) considers that whole-school approach to student well-being needs to place the “learner at the heart of educational endeavours” and this includes what “people communicate and how they do it”. The expectation is to get to the point with student well-being that, as Jimmy O’Connell, Guidance Counsellor at St Peter’s, Dunboyne at the Creating a Listening School Conference described, you are tripping over it.

4. Capacity-building

As the school raises awareness and increases the level of information relating to mental- health being shared through clear and efficient channels of communication, there should be an increase in the understanding of how best to deal with mental-health issues. Capacity- building and self-efficacy in relation to identifying and managing mental-health issues is what any programme should hope to achieve. Across the three groups – students, parents and staff – the development of capacity through a greater level of understanding and awareness that is communicated efficiently should create a mutually beneficial dynamic. Capacity building is defined as any strategy that increases the “collective effectiveness of a group to raise the bar and close the gap of student learning” and that this should occur at the individual level and also at the collective level (Fullan, 2006).

The first area in which capacity must be built is knowledge and competencies. While the My World Survey (2012) found that 70% of Irish adolescents are coping well, have positive self- esteem, and display positive help-seeking behaviours, that still leaves almost 30% having experienced a series of mental disorders in the past year (WHO, 2017). Interventions within the school should aim to build capacity within students, parents and teachers so as to identify issues of mental-health, and to manage those issues through strategies or help- seeking behaviours. Providing opportunities to gain skills throughout the six years of school by way of external talks and programmes (e.g. Aware’s Beat the Blues; Friends Youth Programme; On My Own Two Feet; mentoring; mindfulness) will develop the skills with which to manage the issues of anxiety and stress or the confidence to access the appropriate supports, thus reducing any sense of isolation.

Capacity building in this area is not limited to students. Research has found that secondary school teachers felt that they lacked the confidence and the necessary skills to implement a mental-health programme (Askell-Williams et al., 2007). For teachers and parents, being able to identify symptoms and signs of poor mental-health in themselves, and in the student, can allow for the most appropriate supports to be put in place. People learn best through doing, experiencing and reflecting. By consistently developing a shared-language around positive mental-health and providing opportunities to engage with it, the capacity to utilise these skills when an issue arises is built.

Those who are driving the change in culture within the school must also build capacity in resources. Paying lip-service to the idea of embedding positive mental-health within the school but at the same time not being prepared to change timetables, incorporate new initiatives, or provide time for additional training and CPD will stymie any programme and any sense of ownership. Management must build motivation by developing capacity within the staff and through tangible changes in the approach to mental-health for the entire school community.

Capacity building is also not limited to within-school activities. Seeking to access additional supports and opportunities to develop “lateral capacity building” (Fullan, Cuttress, & Kilcher, 2005) can also assist in embedding mental-health within the school. One way to do this is through the use of cluster-groups. Those who are driving this programme, the “change- leaders” (Fullan, 2006) from schools in the same geographical locality can share resources, share successful strategies and discuss common obstacles, coordinate events, and discuss issues of mental-health pertinent to the community. Using a multi-domain approach (i.e. family/ individual, school and community), has been found to make mental-health provision more successful (Browne, Gafni, Roberts, Byrne & Majumdar, 2004). It is important to recognise the position of the school within its locality and how issues of mental-health can impact on the whole community. Another important way to develop lateral capacity is through the engagement of external agencies. There are many charities which offer school- based initiatives and there are other governmental supports available through National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), National Behaviour Support Service (NBSS), National Council for Special Education (NCSE), and Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST).

5. Belonging and Empowerment

The final area of focus which will develop an embedded culture of positive mental-health and emotional well-being is in a sense of belonging and empowerment. Frederickson (2009) showed that the promotion of positive feelings such as feeling calm, being heard and supported actually can increase creativity and problem-solving skills. Research indicates that a sense of marginalisation and exclusion is a risk factor for adolescents and for adults, and conversely, that student involvement and participation boosts positive mental-health (Engels, Aelterman, Van Petegem, & Schepens, 2004). Building social capital is achieved by allowing each group to feel heard and develop a sense of belonging, participation, trust and reciprocity (Mental-health Foundation, 2010). To develop this sense of belonging and empowerment, there needs to be a belief in the ability to change and shape the collective identity. Creating a sense of belonging is a social action that engenders a sense of empowerment through participation. This process requires an active participation of the individual in the programme in gaining understanding, knowledge and skills that will enable them to have a sense of control over their lives (Barry, 2007).

Developing belonging, connectivity and empowerment can be achieved a number of ways. The first is through the use of questionnaires, seeking out the opinions of the stake-holders and, vitally, publishing the findings. It is important that there is sense of successfully shaping change through the answers provided and making sure it is not simply a gesture. Utilising the psychological knowledge and services available through NEPS can offer a way by which the appropriate questionnaire and measurement tools can be accessed.

The school council is often an under-utilised mechanism for developing a sense of belonging for students. Recognising its importance and celebrating its functions and input to the school is a simple mechanism for raising student involvement. Similarly, with the parent- bodies, providing regular updates and communication about events and mental-health interventions can help manage concerns and fears. Initiatives that seek to draw the parent body (particularly the fathers) into a greater level of positive involvement will also serve to increase a sense of belonging.

Whole-school activities such as awareness weeks (Diversity Week, Friendship Week, Positive Mental-Health Week) that celebrate all aspects of school life can also encourage vertical interaction throughout the year groups and the staff. Any initiatives that positively involve the whole school or that create positive connections between year groups, such as peer mentoring, can develop the sense of togetherness and belonging.

6. Challenges

Successfully embedding positive mental-health in a school is not possible within a single year; experiences shared at the Creating a Listening School conference placed the process at between three and four years. The four areas detailed above take time and are interrelated and dependent on each other. To establish a school where the stake-holders feel empowered requires collaborative and participatory practice (Barry, 2007). Putting in sufficient resources and building capacity requires planning and consultation, and each school’s needs are unique. Consultation is key to understanding what the school requires and providing opportunities for involvement. Fullan (2006) considers motivation as being what it all boils down to. Any attempts to circumvent the process can cause motivation to dissipate. Spending the first year listening, consulting on the specific needs of the school, building the moral purpose, and working on multi-domain approaches will ensure motivation is maintained.

There is a multitude of interventions and programmes available, a week does not go by without at least two emails arriving offering inputs to improve the school’s mental-health, and knowing which one is worthwhile can be daunting and confusing. It is important to remember that there are plenty of excellent programmes that do not require any money to be spent. Utilising the knowledge and experience of those around (e.g. NEPS, management in other schools, Jigsaw) can be very helpful in this regard. It is important to take time to research the different well-being programmes that exist and assess, as best one can, which aspects would be suitable for each school community.

To move forward successfully, recognising the good work that already exists within the school and listening to the students, parents, and staff who are doing very positive work is a good place to begin. Take time to ask the Johns in your staffroom what they have been doing well, what they need to improve, and involve them in making the changes. This programme seeks to embed a culture of positive mental-health within schools through four different but interrelated areas. By raising awareness of the issues around positive mental- health for all stake-holders within the school through clear and effective channels of communication, and providing opportunities to build the capacity of students, parents and staff through knowledge, competencies and resources, the school can encourage participation, empowerment and belonging. John was anxious and may not quite have understood what positive mental-health was all about, but what he did show was a willingness to reach-out and embrace the idea. The desire and recognition of the importance of positive mental-health exists. Ensuring that that willingness is translated into an embedded culture based on awareness raising, effective communication, capacity building, and developing a sense of empowerment and belonging is what this programme seeks to provide.


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Patsy McCaughey

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Educational Psychology