Whether it’s a feeling of dread at going to school, difficulties at home, worries about friendships or facing up to bullies, concerns about certain lessons – perhaps a feeling of being left behind when everyone else knows what’s going on – the challenges which young people face, if they are not equipped to cope with them, can lead to mental health problems during adolescence and later in life. We all need to feel that there is support available, someone to talk to and ways of coping with the difficulties that life can throw at us. Adolescents, who are just on the road to adulthood and independence, can find it harder than some age groups to ask for help. It’s important to let them know where support can be found when they need it.

What is early prevention?

Early prevention, or primary prevention, is about putting things in place to prevent mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, before they happen and is universal to all children and young people: early prevention can be used to protect the mental health of everyone, including those who are deemed more at risk of developing mental health problems later in life.

Early prevention approaches focus on supporting the physical, cognitive, behavioural, and social and emotional development of a child to provide benefits throughout a person’s life.

Why is early prevention important?

Suicide is the largest single cause of death in young people between the ages of 5 and 19 1 and 1 in 8 young people – approximately 3 children in every classroom – have a diagnosable mental health disorder (2). In the UK, we are lucky to have access to an excellent health service, but this health service is under immense pressure and children can wait weeks just for an initial mental health assessment. As young people wait to receive support, their risk of developing mental health problems increases. 

Schools are in a unique position to support children of all ages and backgrounds to increase resilience, develop coping strategies and help prevent mental health problems before they arise. 

What is peer support and how can it help in early prevention?

Peer support programmes are those that train young people to help others learn and develop emotionally, socially, or academically. 

Peer support, for example, peer mentoring, is an effective way of improving wellbeing amongst young people, giving them someone who will listen when they may feel unable to go to an adult with their worries or concerns. 

As well as peer mentoring, effective methods of peer support include young people running campaigns to increase awareness of support available to peers, organising drop-in sessions or designating an area in a school or college where their peers can go to find help/build friendships. 

Peer support has been shown to significantly increase resilience and wellbeing in young people. Read more about this here. Increased wellbeing and resilience are protective factors in good mental health. 

How can you deliver early prevention through the Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme?

The Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme is an evidence-based, blended early prevention and positive outcomes programme developed through working with young people. The programme has been created for use within a school or other educational setting to train a member of staff, for example, a pastoral Head, to deliver training, based on coaching techniques, to a group of 8 – 16 students. These students become the school’s Wellbeing Ambassadors – the training equips the student ambassadors with skills and techniques to support their peers through one-to-one support, drop-in sessions, or campaigns, for example campaigns to reduce stigma surrounding the discussion of mental health. 

How does the Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme help with early prevention?

The Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme helps with early prevention of mental health problems by increasing access to support for all young people. It develops listening and communication skills in the student ambassadors to allow them to identify peers in need of support as well as building their own positive relationships. Coping strategies can be shared amongst peers. Wellbeing Ambassadors are trained to build up personal resources for wellbeing and support peers in doing the same.

The impact of the Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme is school-wide as it creates communities that foster belonging and positive relationships. Students who feel part of a school community, and who can develop positive relationships with their peers, generally feel happier and more able to cope with stress factors in their lives, such as exam pressures or issues at home, thus are less likely to develop depression and/or anxiety. The coping strategies that people learn when they are young tend to stay with them and can help prevent mental health problems later in life. 

If you’re interested in peer support to help early prevention of mental health problems in your young people, find out more about our wellbeing Ambassadors programme here

If you are a School Mental Health Lead looking for ideas and support to embed student voice and peer support into your whole school approach, we have a Developing Student Voice Resource toolkit inside our Wellbeing Club. Find out more here.

References:

  1. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsregisteredinenglandandwalesseriesdr/2017#suicide-accounted-for-an-increased-proportion-of-deaths-at-ages-5-to-19-years-in-2017
  2. https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2017/2017

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