16 January 2020

Stoke Damerel Community College is proud of its innovative approach to mental health awareness, which includes an ongoing longitudinal study to identify and respond to issues facing students during their time at the College and after they leave.

The findings of this long-term audit are helping staff to quickly spot potential mental health concerns among students and ensure early intervention with appropriate support.

The survey began with the class of 2013. As a result, we have gained a clearer view of where and when certain anxieties and issues might arise. This insight is invaluable, in helping us to equip students while they are at the College, and for the years after they leave us to start work or higher education.

This work is so important within the context of our wider community. Out of the 43 neighbourhoods in Plymouth ranked in the indices of multiple deprivation, the school serves the top 4 out of 5 neighbourhoods. Inequalities of health are of particular concern. The Director of Public Health’s annual report for Plymouth in 2016 showed that Stonehouse, Devonport and Stoke had significantly higher rates of poor mental health, self-harm and suicide. Some 11,000 residents are affected by mental health issues (40% of these are young people), 47% of which are from the area the school serves. 

Director of Student Welfare at the College, Mrs Miller, said: “Our audit of wellbeing covers the full school career from Year 7 to Year 13, so we are able to track wellbeing. Where we can, we also follow that on after students leave, through community response. The College was therefore aware that a number of lives were lost among our former male students within a few years of transitioning from school. We also know that other former students had either left higher education or their work because of emotional and mental health issues.  So we needed to look at how we could help and build resilience.

“From our survey, we have been able to identify what some of the major problems are - these include parental mental illness, caring responsibilities and addictions. By identifying potential issues, we can ensure early intervention, which is the key. It has also enabled us to bring in new initiatives to make our students better prepared when they leave, so we are providing them with the tools for them to move on and progress. This is a sustainable, long-term approach.”

Training plays a big part in early intervention. Every member of staff has regular mental health awareness training, including training in Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), and our pastoral team and 20-strong welfare team undergo additional training to become a trauma-informed school. The College has also supported two staff to gain CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) degrees on day release, and three staff members have had specialist ‘STORM’ suicide prevention and self-injury safeguarding training.

The latest staff training is taking place this month, with further training in February. The courses are Mental Health First Aid, delivered by The Zone, and MENTRA, delivered by Local Authority education psychologists - this latter training has a focus on issues affecting Years 11-13. Our College hosted both courses for staff from schools city-wide.

Mrs Sinclair, Vocational Qualifications Manager, said: “With the MENTRA training, we are learning about building relationships to support students to work though the issues, rather than therapy. This is such an important time in the students’ lives, and it can also be a time of challenges - transition to higher education or to work is a big challenge.

“But what if, at the same time, they are under pressure to contribute financially at home once they are 16, but they want to stay on in education? What if they help with younger siblings, which affects their ability to attend College? The cost of university is a massive cause of anxiety, and personal relationships are another issue at this age. Sometimes, young people will fall out with their families and end up leaving the family home. So then, they face the issue of homelessness.”

The College has hosted regular Mental Health First Aid training sessions for two years - Mrs Easterbrook (First Aider) did the course a year ago: “It has helped to highlight what to look out for and how to respond. Often, someone who is struggling with something will try and mask it, so it’s a case of digging a bit deeper to learn what really is going on. Why is it they don’t feel well? Why are they taking time off school? What is causing that headache?

“Since doing the training, I can signpost internally to our welfare team and I can suggest external agencies such as the KOOTH online support service for young people. It has also raised my confidence to have conversations with parents and to talk to students about issues such as self-harm.

“Importantly, I think students feel comforted that support is there for them.”

The College’s mental health work is featured with a full chapter in a book to be published soon, Mental Illness in a Parent and Building Children’s Resilience. The chapter, written by Miss Frier, outlines the College’s trauma-informed practice, our close work with agencies such as health providers, police and the NSPCC, and our co-locating of the school nursing service and Barnado’s on the school site. It also looks at how we have created a culture and a ‘whole curriculum’ approach through special assemblies and tutorials, mentors for individual support, curriculum enrichment and dementia awareness.

The chapter has a particular focus on the work the College does around the needs of young carers - 10% of our students are identified as young carers.  Our ‘Who Cares?’ project - developed and piloted by the College - is a great example of our innovative approach.  All Year 8 students undertake the project over a period of six weeks. The project includes films of dramas written and performed by our students, acting out some of the scenarios faced by young carers who live with someone with a mental illness. The project has now been shared nationally.

Miss Frier said: “Through ‘Who Cares?’, we have become a Mental Health Aware school. It has become embedded in our culture and is something we - staff and students - are very proud of.”

And Mrs Miller added: “We have developed a caring culture around mental ill health, which says that it’s good to discuss how we feel. Our student peer listeners are right at the heart of this and play a hugely important role in supporting younger students.  Because supporting mental illness is such a priority here, the College has ring-fenced the welfare team budget. Students need to feel safe and secure - every child really does matter.”