Mental Health and Bullying – do we need to help teachers help children who are bullied?

This week (14th-20th of November) is anti-bullying week.  Bullying has an undeniable and immediate impact on young people’s mental health. But we also need to think about how we equip teachers not just to help children who are bullied immediately, but to also reduce the long-term impact on their mental health. The first step is being more comfortable about talking to students about their mental health.

Nobody would deny bullying can have a serious impact on children. But it is important to realise that the harm can last long after the bullying has stopped. Nearly half of young people who are bullied at school experience mental health problems, and it has been estimated that up to half of children who die from suicide have been bullied. Those who have been bullied are more likely to access mental health services both in adolescence and in later life, showing it can create persistent problems. [1]

I was therefore glad to see that the Anti-Bullying Alliance, who run the week, have an easily accessible guide on  the connection between mental health and bullying. It includes what the signs are that a bullied child may also have a mental health problem, and information about what teachers can do. This is obviously great, but got me thinking, are teachers really confident that they know what to do? From my experience probably not.

Anyone who has supported someone with a mental health problem knows it can be extremely difficult. It can be difficult to know whether to raise your concerns, what to say, what the right words are to use. The situation is no different for teachers, and they have the added pressure of being in a position of pastoral care. I had a mental health problem while at school and there were a couple of teachers I felt I had a pretty good relationship with, but they never attempted to try to speak to me about what was happening. I remember getting concerned glances when they thought I wasn’t looking and the occasional nervous “everything alright,” but that was it. It wasn’t that their intentions were bad, or they didn’t care, they just didn’t know how to address the situation. I think in many cases they were scared about getting into a conversation on a topic they didn’t understand and making things worse. But, if you decide to speak to your teacher about your mental health and they immediately clam up or change the subject, it just reinforces the feelings that what’s happening is something to be ashamed of.

Of course I don’t want to imply that all teachers are clueless in this area, nor that they alone are responsible for their student’s mental health. However, they do have an important role, and worryingly Young Minds reported the results of a survey where 70% of teachers felt like they were ill equipped to deal with mental health issues related to bullying. That’s why I think that as we think about how we can tackle bullying and support young people this is a really important issue. If we are expecting teachers to take responsibility for young people’s wellbeing they should be given the tools and confidence they need to do it well.

It is not the case that teachers are currently not supported at all. There are a number of great organisations that provide support and training for teachers on how to support their student’s mental health, such as the Charlie Waller Trust. And there is a growing research evidence base for what works. However the survey for Young Minds shows many teachers are yet to benefit from it. In anti-bullying week it is important to remember the long-term impacts of not helping students who are in psychological distress.

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[1] Evans-Lacko, S., Takizawa, R., Brimblecombe, N., King, D., Knapp, M., Maughan, B., & Arseneault, L. (2016). Childhood bullying victimization is associated with use of mental health services over five decades: a longitudinal nationally representative cohort study. Psychological Medicine, 1-9.