This content mentions depression, which some people may find triggering.
Here at the Mental Health Foundation, we are passionate about giving children and young people, as well as those around them, the skills and knowledge to protect and maintain their own mental health.
"The pandemic came with many challenges, both physically and mentally. For me, feelings of guilt arose…I was just sitting around doing nothing. I tried to direct all the time I had into my work, learning new skills, starting new projects. Sounds great, right? But then I realised that my intense need to do something gave me no time to rest and recharge."
As schools reopen for the new academic year, we’re bringing the spotlight back on the mental health and well-being of pupils and those supporting them within education.
"Whether we are in a pandemic or not, self-care still remains of high importance. Learning from this, every day I try to step away from my desk to do an activity, like walking, dancing around my room, watching a TV episode. I need to give my mind a break from everything to finally think about what I need." - Sade Adesida, Work Experience Student at the Mental Health Foundation.
Why is it important to support children and young people’s mental health?
The COVID-19 pandemic, and its widespread disruption, has affected almost all areas of personal, educational and social life for children and young people – especially those experiencing major life transitions, like moving from primary to secondary school or onto university and work.
Now is such an important time to help children and young people to understand and protect their own mental health, as well as that of their peers.
Emerging research on the effect of the pandemic shows that children and young people have consistently shown reduced levels of good mental health and well-being, with:
- The number with a diagnosable mental health condition rose from 1 in 8 in 2018, to 1 in 6.
- At least one-third experiencing an increase in mental health and well-being issues.
- 66% report that they feel alone ‘some of the time’ or ‘often’, according to a study of British 13- to 19-year-olds.
- 45% say that life in the UK will be worse for their future, as a result of the pandemic, according to the same study.
What are the barriers of good mental health for pupils?
When harnessed in the right way, schools hold huge potential for preventing mental health problems. However, an understanding of the barriers that school pupils face to good mental health is needed.
The impact of the pandemic has been disproportionately greater for those who experience greater social and health inequalities, including those in care and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and LGBTQIA+ pupils.[4-6]
The pandemic and the related lockdowns have improved mental health for some – including those with pre-existing health and education needs.[7-8]
However, it has been a difficult time for many young people. Research by the Mental Health Foundation and Swansea University found that in late May and early June 2021, 52% of teenagers said they had felt ‘down, depressed, irritable or hopeless’ on at least several days of the previous fortnight, while 64% said they had felt they had no one to talk to ‘some of the time’ or ‘often’.
From our Make it Count campaign in 2018, we found that:
- 50% of the children interviewed did not ask for help with their mental health because they did not understand what they were going through 
- 10% of those who felt worried or sad at school felt they had no one to talk to 
- of those who did have someone to talk to, over half said it was a peer, rather than a teacher or trusted adult, who they would go to for support 
A study of British teenagers (13 to 19 years old) by the Mental Health Foundation and academic partners has found that 46% of teenagers said contacting friends had helped them to cope with the stress of the pandemic.
These figures highlight the need to improve mental health literacy and build upon existing peer support systems within schools.
What can schools do to support pupils mental health and well-being?
Embed mental health education, and the supportive role of peers, into the curriculum
Our Peer Education Project is one approach to addressing the barriers to good mental health. The project is a secondary-school-based programme that trains school staff to implement the project and trains older pupils to teach younger pupils a mental health curriculum. The programme supports pupils in developing coping strategies to safeguard their mental health and recognising when to ask for help, for themselves or their peers.
Promote a whole-school approach to pupil mental health and well-being
It is important that all members of the school community work together to promote good mental health. School communities include pupils, senior leaders and all school staff, as well as parents, caregivers and the wider community.
To support schools in taking steps towards becoming mentally healthy, we have published several downloadable school packs on mental health-related topics, which are free for schools across the UK.
These packs have been co-produced with Peer Education Project school pupils and staff and include:
- Lesson plans, optional worksheets and PowerPoint slides
- Assembly plans, scripts and PowerPoint slides
- Top Tip Guides for pupils, school staff, parents and caregivers
Topics include: Body Image, Kindness, Sleep and Connecting with Nature
As part of this approach, it is important to prioritise and support the mental health and well-being of school staff.
Why is it important to support the mental health and well-being of school staff?
“I think the perception is that when we went into lockdown, schools just went into lockdown and teachers had been doing nothing for the last nine months. It’s just been non-stop actually" - Emily Widnall*
Together with supporting children and young people, there is the need to prioritise the mental health and well-being of school staff. Even before the pandemic, there were clear connections between workplace stress and poor mental health within the education sector, with around half of school leaders and teachers saying that their workplace had a negative impact on their mental health and well-being.
During the pandemic, the levels of mental distress amongst education professionals have increased – far higher when compared to other professions – and stress levels rose from 62% in July 2020 to 84% in October 2020.
“…I don’t know anyone I’m talking to who isn’t really tired. I think some of that is partly around not being able to do the things that relieve your stress or give variety or things you look forward to." - Emily Widnall*
Recognising the effect the pandemic has had on school staff, and putting support in place, is an integral part of supporting children and young people’s mental health. This is why we partnered with Reflect and Refocus to develop the Rethinking Rest Guide specifically to support school staff with improving the frequency and quality of their rest.
“Understanding rest is the best tool we have to avoid burnout. Rest is so much more than sitting down for a few moments or that annual holiday. It is about learning how to replenish the areas of ourselves that are depleted and exhausted. By expanding our understanding of what types of rest we need and how to create that time, we will begin to reclaim our resilience and keep our fuel tank topped up.” - Ruth Hughes, Founder of Reflect and Refocus
Our shared experience of the pandemic, and its effects on mental health, seem to have increased awareness of the importance of good mental health and well-being and encouraged conversations on stigma, help-seeking and self-care. By understanding the effects of the pandemic on different groups of children and young people, as well as education staff, we can better understand how to support pupils to stride forward into a more positive future.
* Emily Widnall is a Senior Research Associate in Public Health at the University of Bristol and is currently researching the impacts of COVID-19 on adolescent mental health and well-being, social connections, and social media activity, as well as understanding school staff’s experiences of lockdown and returning to school after lockdown.
The study is funded by the NIHR School for Public Health Research. The initial student questionnaire findings were released in a report in August 2020 and findings from the ‘return to school’ questionnaire will be released later this year. The Mental Health Foundation has been part of the advisory group for the research study.
Download our guides
We have guides tailored to support schools, education staff, parents, children and young people look after their mental health.
Education Support – Dedicated to supporting the mental health and well-being of education staff in schools, colleges and universities, Education Support’s Mental Health and Well-being Hub is full of information, tools and resources on school staff mental health and well-being.
Anna Freud Centre – Schools in Mind is a free network for education professionals which shares practical, academic and clinical expertise about mental health and well-being in schools and FE colleges.
If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.
- NHS Digital (2020). Mental Health of Children and Young People in England. NHS. [Accessed on 23/06/21].
- Barnardo’s. (2020). Coping with Grief, Bereavement and Loss. Barnardo’s. [Accessed on 23/06/21].
- Study data are collected by YouGov Plc for the Mental Health Foundation and Swansea University. The data cited here are based on a sample of 2349 teenagers aged 13 to 19 years. Fieldwork was done between 24th May to 15 June 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB Teenagers aged 13-19 years. For more information about the study, see https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/research/coronavirus-and-adolescent-mental-health-study
- NHS Digital. (2020). Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2020: Wave 1 follow up to the 2017 survey. July-August 2020.
- Shum A, Skripkauskalte S, Pearcey S, Waite P and Creswell C. (2021). Report 10: Children and adolescents’ mental health: One year in the pandemic. Co-Space. May 2021.
- Just Like Us. (2021). ‘Growing up LGBT+’: The impact of school home and coronavirus on LGBT+ young people.
- Widnall, E., Winstone, L., Mars, B., Haworth, C. & Kidger, J. (2020). Young People’s Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic Initial. NIHR 370.
- Bobo, E. et al. (2020). How do children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) experience lockdown during the COVID-19 outbreak? Encephale. 46, S85–S92.
- The Mental Health Foundation. (2018). Make it Count. MHF. [Accessed 23/06/21].
- Education Support. (2019). Teacher Wellbeing Index 2019. [Accessed 03/08/21].
- Education Support. (2020). Teacher Wellbeing Index 2020. [Accessed 03/08/21].
- Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. (2021). Emerging evidence: Coronavirus and children and young people’s mental health. Issue 8 Research Overview. Evidence Based Practice Unit. June 2021.