With one in four adults experiencing mental ill-health in any given year, it is very likely that you, as a school leader or senior member of staff, will come across a colleague with a mental health difficulty.
Knowing how to recognise that they are struggling and feeling confident about helping and supporting them is key; especially as taking early action can prevent problems escalating and help individuals to recover more quickly.
However, it’s important to remember that you are not expected to be a mental health expert or to offer medical advice. But as a senior leader you do have a legal duty to ensure the health of your staff, and you should be leading the development of a school culture and ethos around mental health which allows all staff to be open and honest about their needs and experiences.
Early warning signs
Often, the early signs that an individual may be experiencing the beginnings of mental ill-health might be more noticeable to the people around them, rather than to the individual staff member who is experiencing the difficulties. It may be up to their line manager and/or colleagues to recognise these early warning signs and to take action.
Opening up a conversation
If you think a colleague is showing some signs of early mental ill-health you should talk to them, find out what they may be struggling with in the workplace (which might include work pressures or relationships with colleagues), and what might help them.
Responding to a staff member who says they are unwell
If a colleague tells you they have a mental health difficulty you should discuss it with them, avoiding making any assumptions. Ask about what workplace triggers might affect them (including work pressures or relationships with colleagues) and what support/adjustments might help.
Supporting a colleague
Supporting a colleague can feel daunting, and you may worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. But with a positive approach and sensitivity, there is a lot you can do. There are no special skills needed – just the ones you use every day as a people manager such as common sense, empathy, being approachable and listening.
A mental health difficulty can qualify as a disability under the Equality Act. This means that a member of staff has the legal right to request reasonable adjustments to be made to their work routine, their work environment or how they do their job.
Time off and returning to work
If someone needs to take a longer period of time off for their mental health it is important to maintain regular contact if practicable, as keeping communication lines open can help prevent staff feeling isolated at home. But this contact must be done in association with HR advice, your school’s absence management policies, the individual’s union (if appropriate) and with the member of staff’s explicit permission.
What to do in a crisis
Sometimes a colleague will need more urgent help. They may be having a serious panic attack, feeling suicidal or perhaps are thinking about hurting themselves or others. The NHS provides guidance about what to do with a mental health crisis or emergency and who to contact. The charity, Mind, also has information about how to get help in a crisis.