Why your school needs mental health first aid [interview]

Kath Thompson

Kath Thompson is project coordinator for Merseyside Youth Association Raise Team and director of the NOW Festival. MYA facilitates and supports a network of children, young people, parents and carers who have experience of CAMHS in Liverpool. Aimed at children and young people up to the age of 18 who have had experience of Liverpool CAMHS, the organisation brings them together to influence decisions which affect their lives. Find MYA’s latest report here.

Follow @kath_create @MYARAISETeam

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Image courtesy of Merseyside Youth Association (MYA) // Kath (centre-front) with colleagues (left to right) Leigh, Damian and Tony. Image courtesy of Merseyside Youth Association (MYA) // Kath (centre-front) with colleagues (left to right) Leigh, Damian and Tony.

Following recent news stories regarding mental health in schools, we liaised with the Department of Health and Social Care (currently providing funding for every state Secondary school in England to receive training) to see about how schools might better handle this vital area of education.

They put us in touch with former teacher Kath Thompson, a Liverpool-based mental health professional doing great work in schools with the Merseyside Youth Association...

How did you get involved in mental health training?

I work for a charity in Liverpool called the Merseyside Youth Association, which deals with mental health promotion in children and young people, and we are funded through the local clinical commissioning group (CCG). We have provided mental health training for parents, carers, schools and nurses for many years, so this is a natural extension of what we have always been doing. I first trained as a mental health first aid trainer in 2016. I was struck by the simplicity of the idea - I love the way it captures the essence of everything you need to know about mental health on a basic level.

How did the Merseyside Youth Association get involved in delivering mental health first aid (MHFA) across Liverpool?

We got involved in the MHFA schools programme as part of the Liverpool Learning Partnership, where we were contributing to a research project looking at what was working, and what wasn’t working, across the city in terms of children’s mental health. A clear need that was highlighted to us as part of this research was that school staff were clearly asking for a mental health trainer in every school. We got in touch with Mental Health First Aid England, and they commissioned us to train up every Secondary school in Liverpool.

How has the programme developed?

Working with MHFA England, we have established a network of mental health first aiders in schools across the city - at least one member of staff in every Secondary school in Liverpool has now been trained. This cohort of staff have become a network amongst themselves, asking each other how they handle certain issues and the referral routes they use. They support each other, and have been extremely passionate about bringing even more members of staff on board.

What reaction do you get from staff when they come to your training?

It’s amazing. I see staff having a ‘lightbulb moment’, where everything falls into place. They are struck by how much there is to know, but are so grateful that they have had the training. They realise how valuable the training is, and very often they want to bring another staff member on board afterwards.

What have been the results?

The feedback has been amazing. We have worked with schools to give them practical resources, such as a flowchart showing the referral routes for children they think might need extra help. As these routes are specific to Liverpool; it’s been great that we have been able to deliver the programme for the whole city. We have very much taken a ‘whole-school approach’, and want mental health first aid to be part of the everyday working of the school. This is why many schools are keen for more than one staff member to be trained up. We are seeing more and more schools coming back to us for additional training, and some of the staff who have had the training are now running ‘twilight' sessions in their own schools to spread the word to the rest of their team.

What would you like to see happen next?

The staff who have been trained are very much champions for mental health across the city. This network of around 45 experts are already inspiring and enthusing others, and I believe that together we will make a real impact and difference to children’s mental wellbeing in the future. All too often, staff do not have the confidence to deal with these issues, and I think it’s incredibly important that we equip them with the skills they need to have these potentially life-changing conversations. I’d like to continue to deliver training and see the impact of this project go from strength-to-strength.

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