Schools and mental health

From the moment a parent waves goodbye at the door of the junior infants’ classroom, a journey towards independence begins for their son or daughter.

Youth Mental Health SchoolsSignificant parts of that journey are played out in the school setting, an environment that parents are largely removed from. It’s understandable that parents would want to know more about the place of mental health in schools, from a curriculum, supports and school culture perspective.

The good news is that schools have the best interests of young people at heart. Schools have a legal obligation to support mental health as stated in the 1998 Education Act. The role of a school is to: “promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students and to provide health education for them in consultation with their parents.”

In the classroom

Curriculum dedicated space for ‘Social, Personal and Health Education’ is included on the school curriculum in primary and secondary schools – but only up to Junior Cert.

There is a senior cycle SPHE curriculum but not all schools include it. SPHE is the class teachers can use to address mental health issues and have discussions with students around issues like self-esteem, bullying and alcohol.

Anecdotally, we know that many young people think SPHE is under-valued and is not taken seriously. SPHE can cover the full range of issues that can effect mental health and well-being, including Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE). As parents, SPHE can be a focus when it comes to addressing mental health issues in schools.

Parents can take an active role in the implementation of SPHE in schools:

  • Let school management, principals and individual teachers know that SPHE is important to you in the context of your son or daughter’s mental health.
  • During parent-teacher meetings, ask to speak with your son/daughter’s SPHE teacher to see how they are doing in this subject


Support for students in the school setting will often come from the school guidance counsellor. Their role usually covers personal counselling, education counselling and career counselling but if a student needs ongoing personal counselling that support is usually provided outside of the school setting.

Schools are also encouraged to have a general ‘whole-school guidance plan’ which covers things like:

  • Bullying policy
  • Critical incident response
  • Student support teams
  • Child protection policy
  • Code of behaviour.

Apart form a whole-school guidance plan, further supports in the education system include the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS). NEPS work with schools to provide individual student assessments and to support the school community following a critical incident.

Further supports that are available to schools include the HSE support in the wider community through GP services and CAMHS. So often, people become concerned about academic success and achievement to secure the ideal college course or get started in a career but it’s really important to know about the support structures in place in your son or daughter’s school.

If you are unsure about what is in place ask the principal about the school guidance plan. PSI Comment: Can academic pressure and bulling be dealt with here?

School culture

In the education system, a ‘whole-school approach’ to health is often mentioned. What does this mean? One definition of a whole-school approach is: ”

An approach which goes beyond the learning and teaching in the classroom to pervade all aspects of the life of the school. This includes involvement by students, teachers, principals, all other school staff, health personnel, school managers, school visitors and the wider school community who interact with the school.”

As parents, you are a really important part of the ‘wider school community’ so take your place in that community and get involved. The influence of school on the mental health and well-being of your son or daughter doesn’t have to be a mystery.

If you are concerned about a young person, find out about the supports available in their school and go outside of the school setting to get support and advice if you need to.

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