Mental Health in Law and Education: Care, Listen, Protect and Promote

By Daisy Whittingham of Handsam Ltd.

The black and white closed lines of laws can often fall short of capturing the individual and complex issue of mental health and the unique situation of sufferers. It is all too common for guidance to be vague and unhelpful or for regulations to ignore the human element of mental health through unbending structures. However several pieces of recent law and statutory guidance have moved to legislate, but also to reevaluate, the approach to mental health in schools. Although often dealing with weighty themes and formed to combat distressing issues, the laws are positive in that they return to the overarching principals of a duty of care, a duty to listen, to perceive and protect and to use education as a means of promoting wellbeing, confidence and mental health.

The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 and Prevent Duty

The Prevent Duty requires teachers to endeavour to protect the children and young people in their care from the threat of extremism and forms a key element of the counter terrorism strategy. Radical groups now have multiple platforms from which to perpetuate their ideology and often target vulnerable young people, structuring their rhetoric to include promises of inclusion, worth and purpose. Far reaching propaganda machines groom and coerce pupils, often conducting drawn out emotional abuse which destroys confidence, shuts them out from friends and family and denies the worth of the world around them.

The Duty works on the concept that if extremists capitalise on vulnerability, then an education system and educators that promote a positive mental outlook and inclusive environment, can work to counteract them. Prevent acknowledges the vital role of discussion and communication, listening and learning in the fight on terror. Schools should be designated safe spaces wherein pupils feel able to open up about any concerns they have, whether regarding the nature and threat of terrorism, or anything else. The Duty is about tutoring students in resilience and tolerance, as well making them more capable of making safe and informed choices, identifying social pressures and promoting their own and others mental health and wellbeing.

Keeping Children Safe in Education 2016

Arguably the most important statutory guidance produced by the Department for Education, Keeping Children Safe in Education was updated for September 2016. The document reaffirms that although safeguarding is everyone’s duty, those in education are amongst the best placed to perceive signs of abuse.  The guidance states that ‘safeguarding issues are rarely standalone events that can be covered by one definition or label. In most cases, multiple issues will overlap with one another’ and ‘some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child.’ Emotional abuse can take many forms including persistent degradation and negativity or the closing down of social opportunities. The child can be silenced or given unreasonable expectations and made to feel scared and alone.

Teachers and staff need to be conscious therefore that a mental health concern could be symptomatic of another form of abuse. Staff must be aware, be sensitive and be there. The guidance stresses that no issue should be categorised as trivial and that kind words and a reassurance of continued support could be a lifeline to a struggling child, whatever form that struggle takes.

Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

The majority of media coverage around the introduction of the ban on psychoactive substances focused on dance culture and university students; it gestured to festivals and reported from busy bars and clubs on this particular variety of narcotic. Although these often toxic substances were a real problem in such scenes, many overlooked their prevalence amongst those under eighteen. The ready availability and cheap price made young people turn to them as their age denied them alcohol, particularly as they were marketed as replicating their illegal counterparts. Right beneath the warning ‘not for human consumption’ was the promise to provide the dizzying highs of ecstasy or the abandon of ketamine. Poisonous, unregulated and available, the government took action to stop legal highs being turned to as a means of escape for vulnerable young people.

Schools are advised to remain diligent as these drugs can sometimes resemble sweets in unassuming packaging or be in the form of pipette-like dispensers. The very nature of these drugs make them difficult for teachers to spot and prevent, but through a robust approach and clear communication with young people, the societal change necessary for the successful implementation of the ban will be achieved. By offering an alternative, a friendly ear or safe space, pupils may think twice before taking such a dangerous gamble.

Safeguarding Reform

The inadequacies of mental health provision are often the subject of news reports. Frequently, it is reported that signs have been overlooked, people have passed the book and professionals have failed to answer the phone or open the office door to those in need. The government are now in consultation on a proposed bill to make these failures to help vulnerable children a crime.

The law will either take the form of a mandatory duty which would impose a legal requirement to report, or a duty to act which would impose a legal requirement on certain professionals and organisations to take appropriate action when they know or suspect a child is suffering. Detractors have argued that this could lead to a diversion of funds from support to investigation. Those in support however say it would reduce cases of a quiet voice being lost in the many in an education context. The consultation will close on October 13th, see the documents here.

Recent legislation has made steps towards acknowledging the key role of mental health in tackling issues as diverse as drug abuse to the risk of extremism. But those overarching principals of a duty of care, a duty to listen, to perceive and protect and to use education as a means of boasting confidence and promoting mental health, are designed to support children in their mental wellbeing in all circumstances and in the face of all challenges. 

Handsam can offer a wealth of resources, advice and guidance on current legal requirements and regulations relevant to mental health through our Quick Guide library. Find out more at handsam.education, or contact us on 03332 070737 or at info@handsam.co.uk

You can also sign up for our free ezine, Compliance Matters, which will keep you up to date with changes and news from the education and health and safety sectors

Handsam Ltd is a leading provider of compliance consultancy services, online management systems, support and advice to the education sector.

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