You may have recently completed the senior mental health lead training or mental health may be much more of a focus in your school, as you are starting to realise that the impact of mental health has on children and young people's ability to learn. 

You might be looking for mental health lesson plans to meet the statutory requirements set out by the DfE (2020) to teach the topic of mental health in your PSHE or RSE curriculum. 

Why schools need to teach lessons on mental health and wellbeing

Before we get into how to teach a mental health lesson let's cover why we need mental health lessons in schools.

Emotional disorders and common mental health problems, particularly anxiety and depression, are on the rise for children and young people. Day-to-day stress can have a negative impact on mental health and the long-term impact of the pandemic, inability to access school, isolation and challenges that young people have experienced over the past two years. 

This has been compounded by a lack of capacity to support the mental ill-health of young people. Only 1 in 4 children or young people referred to CAMHS can access support. This leaves schools with the task of improving the mental health of children and young people.

Teaching lessons on mental health and wellbeing raises awareness earlier and also provides an opportunity for early prevention to improve capacities for wellbeing that protect against the onset of mental health problems.

DfE statutory guidance on mental health lessons

In the DfE guidance for teaching RSE mental wellbeing is taught in these ways

Pupils should know

  • how to talk about their emotions accurately and sensitively, using appropriate vocabulary.
  • that happiness is linked to being connected to others. 
  • how to recognise the early signs of mental wellbeing concerns.
  • common types of mental ill health (e.g. anxiety and depression). 
  • how to critically evaluate when something they do or are involved in has a positive or negative effect on their own or others’ mental health.
  • the benefits and importance of physical exercise, time outdoors, community participation and voluntary and service-based activities on mental wellbeing and happiness.

However, these statutory learning outcomes are a mix of approaches to teaching mental health and wellbeing which can be confusing and therefore harder to teach.

A mental health awareness lesson or a wellbeing lesson, what’s the difference?

Mental health and mental illness are two different things. According to Professor Cory Keyes, they operate on two spectrums, known as the dual mental health continuum. It can be a common misconception to assume that if we reduce mental health problems it automatically increases wellbeing. It does not.

Strategies for mental wellbeing and positive mental health are on a different axis to understanding what mental illness is and how to reduce the impact. They should be taught explicitly to protect against the onset of mental-ill health. We call this promoting wellbeing or lessons for promoting wellbeing.

We use this dual mental health module to teach schools and practitioners to understand the area of mental health or wellbeing they want to work on by teaching positive mental health– just like we teach about physical health.

Dual Mental Health Continuum (Prof. Corey Keyes)

Mental health lessons

The first approach builds ill-health and understanding of mental health problems. Helpful topics to cover in these lessons include in mental health problem awareness lessons are

  • how to identify mental health problems or mental ill health symptoms earlier in the onset of the problem, such as common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression
  • what stops pupils from feeling able to ask for support for their mental health
  • myth-busting any incorrect terminology or misconceptions around mental health conditions 
  • the difference between mental health problems and special educational needs
  • challenging any stigmatising language or stigmatising behaviours that are impacting on the mental health of others
  • normalising conversations about mental health and mental health problems
  • increasing acceptance and understanding
  • encouraging children and young people to seek support for their mental health sooner
  • to know where to get mental health support in your school or setting

The PSHE Association has great free mental health lesson plans and resources

We would say these lessons are about mental health problems not actually mental health or strategies to be mentally healthy. This is known as a deficit or problem-focused approach. Or what we call ‘mental health problem awareness lessons’, it’s a mouth full, no wonder it gets shortened (incorrectly) to mental health lessons!

The aim of these lessons is through sharing awareness of what mental health problems are can increase acceptance, improve understanding and reduce stigma in your school. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that students now feel able to improve their mental health, they are just more aware of the types of issues and the correct terminology to use. This actually can cause a rise in young people seeking support for their mental health as they are now more aware of the problems they are experiencing and have a language for it.

Wellbeing lessons

The second approach to teaching mental health lessons is the focus on positive mental health or wellbeing or what is known as the ability to flourish.

Topics for teaching wellbeing include

  • how to develop a health awareness of emotions to be able share and express emotions accurately, to understand feelings and experience positive emotions
  • how to develop positive relationships, belonging and connection that the ability to feel happy is linked to being connected to others
  • how to become self-aware enough to know what can help your own wellbeing and use those strategies when you need them.
  • the benefits and importance of healthy habits that improve wellbeing such as physical exercise, time outdoors, community participation and voluntary and service-based activities.

These skills for developing wellbeing are dynamic and the best way to understand them is by watching the video below which explains about the dynamic model of wellbeing and how it can help children and young people to flourish. You can even use this video in a wellbeing lesson, we don’t mind!

Wellbeing lesson plan framework

So it may now seem that teaching a wellbeing lesson is more complicated than you thought. That’s ok we're here to help.

We want to support you to find a framework to really understand the strategies that are teachable and learnable for boosting pupil wellbeing. We use the SEARCH framework as a way to help teachers and schools understand how to teach wellbeing lessons and activities that are going to make a difference to protecting against the onset of mental illness and promote mental wellbeing.

The SEARCH framework is an evidence-based framework developed by Loton and Waters in 2019. It provides a helpful way to organise, coordinate, teach and learn about strategies for wellbeing in schools or educational settings.

How to use a framework to plan wellbeing lessons

Like any subject, having a simple framework for teaching wellbeing can make life a lot easier. Using it can help you audit and plan out the mental health and wellbeing strategies that you want to teach in your mental health lessons or even wider wellbeing curriculum. While at the same time feeling confident to know what you are teaching actually helps pupils improve wellbeing.

Take a look at the six areas for SEARCH listed below, which do you already teach in wellbeing lessons? Are there any gaps? Focus on what you are already doing well and plan your wellbeing lessons from this starting point.

SEARCH Pathways to Wellbeing (Loton and Waters, 2019)

The SEARCH approach looks at these key areas for teaching strategies for wellbeing:

  • S – Strengths are the things you do well that help your wellbeing and you choose to do often
  • E – Emotional Management is well does everyone manage and express emotions and feelings 
  • A – Attention and Awareness is how well can we all focus, and what we choose to pay attention to
  • R – Relationships is about how well everyone builds and supports positive social relationships and connections
  • C - Coping is about learning how well everyone manages external and internal demands to be resilient
  • H – Habits and Goals are that actions you take help build and maintain strategies for wellbeing and protect mental health

Your lessons could focus on one area of SEARCH or several. Reviewing topics through this lens of SEARCH helps you see if you're focusing on one particular area of mental wellbeing or even not at all. 

SEARCH can also help you build a wellbeing curriculum by sequencing the learning by age or year group. You could focus on sharing one area of SEARCH per school year. For example,

  • relationships could be taught in year 7 to help with transition
  • emotional management in year 8 as the puberty hormones start going on the rampage
  • attention and awareness in year 10 to focus on strategies for thinking, focus and learning
  • coping can help manage exam stress and support students to be resilient in year 11

These are just a few suggestions to show how versatile the SEARCH pathways can be used to plan or teach a wellbeing lesson. There is no real right or wrong way and we feel it is important not to be prescriptive as every school community is different.  What is more important that you understand how you are teaching wellbeing in your lessons and wider curriculum and the positive impact that can have on your students and wider school community.

Learn how to teach wellbeing strategies in lessons 

We want to support you to access a range of teachable wellbeing activities that you can use in your own lessons by joining our wellbeing toolkit course. 

We have created a wellbeing toolkit course which provides you with training and practical wellbeing resources for teaching wellbeing in your lessons or wider curriculum. The course is available for individuals or staff teams

Joining the wellbeing toolkit course will save you time and also help you feel confident to know what you are teaching will support your students or pupils improve their wellbeing.

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