As a school counsellor and *Thrive lead at an inner-city primary school, mental health support is a key priority. Working with the newly established Mental Health Support Team (MHST) has been a challenging but also positive experience. When I saw the article in the BACP Children, Young People and Families journal asking for members to share their experience, I thought this would be a good opportunity to share our learning so far and highlight the added value the MHST has brought, particularly around working with parents and carers.
Our journey with the MHST began towards the end of 2021. The Local Authority approached the school and asked us to take part in a pilot project aiming to increase access to mental health support for children and young people. It made sense that I was tasked with leading the pilot. I'd worked in schools as a teacher and have been a therapist for over eight years. But while the school and I were excited by the opportunity, we were concerned starting mid-year would have its drawbacks.
Schools like to create a plan and consider the intricacies of how a new initiative can work. This crucial work usually takes place in the final part of the summer term, and we wouldn’t have that opportunity. The first hurdle we came across was finding spaces for the team to work from. Having a regular safe and confidential space is key for any intervention work, but even more crucial when you're supporting vulnerable children and families.
Once we'd found and allocated spaces, and they did take some finding, we needed to look at how we could refer, primarily, families of vulnerable children to this service. Thinking of ways that the service could be built into our school systems and within our existing therapeutic provision was essential. It was important that it wasn’t viewed as an add on. It made sense to invite the MHST to our weekly inclusion meetings where we discuss the holistic needs of vulnerable children and families. For me, this was the perfect forum for them to attend but a few members of the Inclusion Team were initially hesitant about sharing and discussing cases with the MHST. It was important to hear these concerns and reassure the team that the MHST would be there in a supportive capacity.
The MHST at the school is currently made up of students on placements, two Senior Mental Health Practitioners who support and oversee their work and a Senior Therapist and Supervisor. The students mainly carry out targeted work with parents as this is the current focus of their training. In essence, they support parents and carers enabling them to best support their children. They generally work with low level issues.
So where are we now, six months since the MHST joined the school? The team have met parents and carers and offered one-to-one intervention. They've delivered a transition workshop to year 6 pupils. We've now had joint planning with the MHST and looked at the offer across the school for next year.
I've noticed in our weekly inclusion meetings how the views and opinions of the MHST are actively sought by staff. There has been a shift in thinking with members of the Inclusion Team. Staff are becoming more aware of the inner world of the child when cases are discussed. I recently completed the DFE funded Senior Mental Health Training with Thrive. I created an action plan as part of the training, the work of the MHST has now become a central part of this plan.
The Senior Mental Health Practitioners have also supported us with CAMHS referrals when needed. The widening supervision to all staff members of the school community was something that we were unable to offer due to financial constraints. Having the Senior Therapist and Supervisor from the MHST on site has now made this possible. I envisage by the new academic year, once they are even more established, this will further free up my time to focus on the more complex cases, there’s certainly enough work for us all.
Our experience of health services in the past has been one where they often assume a position of seniority. This is not the case with MHST. This group of professionals appreciate the knowledge and experience we hold about the children and families and are respectful of the school. They are more collaborative in their approach towards mental health support within our organisation and share relevant information appropriately. It should be noted, information shared focuses on whether parents and carers are engaging and attending appointments, the content of the sessions remains confidential to any agreements set.
I wasn’t sure at the start of this process if having the MHST in school would work. You do need to put time and effort into thinking about how the team can fit into the school offer. Having a named person on the school staff to coordinate this who is prepared to dedicate time is also key. I’ve had to be creative, forward thinking and adaptable to ensure that this works.
I can say wholeheartedly that having the MHST in our school has worked and we continue to build our mental health provision in school. The Head Teacher agreed with this view and said: "High levels of emotional need post pandemic have placed tremendous strain on school resources. The collaborative work between the MHST and ourselves has meant that we have been able to take advantage of early interventions and support the pupils and parents as a package. This can only be an advantage to both the school and wider community".
I’m aware the profession has voiced concerns about MHSTs, particularly linked to worries around the possible lack of continued investment in school counselling provision. Our experience, although small scale, demonstrates that our joint services clearly complement each other. We offer different levels of support; currently the MHST’s focus is to support parents, however, they have access to an embedded referral pathway for children with more complex needs, which ultimately remains as counselling.
* Thrive provides a whole school approach to wellbeing and draws on insights from attachment theory and recent advances in neuroscience.
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