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What Can Educational Psychologists Do to Support Mental Health?

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Over the years, the role of the educational psychologist has progressed alongside societal and community changes. It no longer looks like stand-alone standardised assessments and being the ‘expert’ in barriers to learning.

The move away from the medical model has promoted a more rounded holistic approach in supporting children, families and schools. Engaging with stakeholders in a more contextual and meaningful way has moved education further forward in varying directions.

When supporting a child or young person, we would be disillusioned if we solely focused on one aspect of their lives, such as school, rather than considering them as individuals, and taking an ecological approach to look at all influencing factors of their lives.

Within my practice, I have seen positive changes taking a more community-based educational psychologist role, which has led to much more success in partnership working with other agencies to creating more positive outcomes for children, young people, and their families within their communities.

However, with this community approach, we need to be cautious around increasing and changing demands on the role of the educational psychologist.

Support for mental health

Mental health issues in Scotland is on the rise, particularly among adolescents. The Scottish Health Survey saw an increase in the percentage of adolescents reporting emotional and behavioural difficulties.

The survey also stated that approximately 20% of young adults in Scotland reported a possible psychiatric disorder in 2016. Although these statistics are a few years old, I have no doubt that we will, unfortunately, continue to see these trends increasing in the next census.

So is the prevalence of mental health increasing or are we getting better at identifying concerns within our young people? Of all statistics published around mental health, two in particular (from Youth Parliament Mental Health Survey 2015) stuck with me:

  • 27% of young people don’t feel supported to talk about mental health.
  • 1 in 4 young people considered themselves to have experienced mental health difficulties yet 70% of those people didn’t know where to access support.

Over a quarter of our young people don’t feel they are able to talk to someone about mental health. Have we done enough in our schools and communities to de-stigmatise mental health and normalise that everyone has mental health, similar to everyone having physical health?

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I wonder if there is a further role for all within the community in promoting a sense of belonging and acceptance for our children, young people and families, even if this simply looks like a smile upon passing in the streets.

Steps in promoting mental health improvement

We know that early intervention in mental health difficulties is vital for success, rather than a reactive and fire-fighting approach.

There are key elements that we, as communities, should be supported to promote a more positive mentally healthy community:

  • One dependable adult. The importance of having a trusting person to support us through our highs and lows.
  • Peer support. Using technology and social media to build opportunities for children and young people to provide peer support, as we know those who are talking to others about any issues are able to enjoy better mental health.
  • Whole-school approaches to mental health and well-being. Building mental health discussions and lessons into the curriculum to reduce stigma, implementing positive relationship policies, and exploring the school ethos.
  • Responding to distress in the community. Ensuring there is a strong network of youth and community services that are confident and skilled to support young people and intervene with those in distress or flag them to the most appropriate agency.

The importance of early intervention support should be tailored because, for the last several decades, approaches have been reactive instead of being proactive.

Educational psychologists have a key role to play in ensuring that the mental health and well-being of students are being looked after.

Lynne Fernie is an educational psychologist based in Scotland. She holds an MSc in Educational Psychology from the University of Dundee.

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