Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of Education and Training, The Centre for Child Mental Health


Let’s talk about mental health 

Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of Education and Training, The Centre for Child Mental Health discusses the need to normalise talking about mental health and make schools, colleges and universities therapeutic places to support the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff:

We are facing a mental health crisis, the perfect storm - the culmination of a mental health service that is no longer fit for purpose, (due to lack of funding for children and young people) and the post pandemic impact on our wellbeing.

With an ever increasing number of young adults especially full-time students, seeking support from mental health services, now is the time to change our perspective on how we view mental health and wellbeing, and the way we approach support.

Referrals to Improving Access to Psychological Treatment (IAPT) services for 18-35 year olds has seen the largest increase over the past 3 years1, and waiting lists are extensive which means young adults are living with distress and trauma for extended amounts of time. If we allow this to continue we will be failing our young people by missing a major opportunity to prevent long term mental and physical health problems.

We need to start normalising mental health, open the channels of communication for students suffering from the fall out of painful life experience, by becoming active listeners, having empathic conversations rather than waiting for diagnosis and medication which does not address the cause of the young person’s distress.

Research shows that empathic listening to young people has an incredible impact on the autonomic nervous system, triggering reward neurochemicals and calming and alleviating stress in an enduring way.

The emotional brain and the thinking brain are not two separate entities, when students have experienced trauma and are reeling from emotional pain they cannot learn. We need a paradigm shift in our education system, a holistic view of the whole student rather than a divided one where teachers and lecturers deal with either academic learning or pastoral care.

Schools, colleges and universities need to be therapeutic places providing support throughout the years each student spends within their walls. This does not mean that every teacher or lecturer needs to be a trained counsellor, but rather those members of staff who are empathetic, natural emotional nurses, need to be given the encouragement and opportunity to train so they feel competent in having life-changing conversations not pseudo-competent.

Many teachers and lecturers worry that by talking to their students about their mental health they could make it worse2. This is a huge misconception. Research shows that just one empathic teacher who checks-in regularly with the student in emotional pain, can interrupt the trajectory from unprocessed painful life experience to long term mental and physical illness.

Research also shows that appropriately-trained teachers and assistants, can achieve results comparable to those achieved by trained therapists in addressing mild to moderate mental health problems, such as anxiety, conduct disorder, substance use and post-traumatic stress3.

If we are to successfully create this therapeutic ethos, we not only need to look at the mental health of the student body, but also the mental health of the staff. Teaching is the only frontline service that does not receive mental health support and we need to provide it.

Only eight percent of schools, colleges and universities have access to supervision and safe spaces4 for teachers to reflect and process the extremely stressful and painful experiences that happen to them at work, or to celebrate their successes. During the last year 62% of education staff and 77% of senior leaders described themselves as stressed and 31% of educational staff reported experiencing a mental health issue5. Staff are trying to deal with chronic stress alone, and too many teachers end up with stress related illness, secondary trauma, anxiety, depression and burn out.

Education professionals have much higher levels of depression than the general population6. With 52% of education professionals and 59% of senior leaders having considered leaving the profession due to pressures on their health and wellbeing, and more than half (57%) of education professionals feeling unable to share mental health concerns with their employer7, we cannot ignore the situation, we must provide solutions to avoid an exodus from the teaching profession.

Reflective supervision enables teaching staff to have a regular reflective space to talk about their work with a trained psychologist or therapeutically trained senior educationalist who offers validating, empathic and non-judgemental listening and advice. This safe, confidential space empowers staff to talk frankly about the challenges of teaching - those frightening, painful, rage-inducing times and the lovely times, and provides support and new relational skills.

It’s a therapeutic space to process emotionally charged stress inducing experiences, receive support from others, share ideas about how to resolve a situation, explore how a particular student has triggered a traumatic memory, talk about feeling impotent, overwhelmed, trapped, scared etc. and to know others feel this too.

We have a wealth of neuroscience evidence that being listened to in this way has a profound impact on physical and emotional health. Without this support in schools, colleges and universities which are essentially now front line mental health services, we are guilty of emotional neglect for young people and the very people who make such a huge difference in their lives.

Dr Margot Sunderland, Director of Education and Training, The Centre for Child Mental Health 

Dr Margot Sunderland is Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health London, CEO of The Higher Education Psychotherapy Training College, The Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education (academic partner of University of East London), Honorary Visiting Fellow at London Metropolitan University, Senior Associate Member of the Royal College of Medicine, and Co-Director of Trauma Informed Schools UK.

Dr Sunderland is also a Child Psychotherapist with over thirty years’ experience of working with children and families. She is  the author of over twenty books in the field of child and youth mental health, which collectively have been translated into eighteen languages and published in twenty-four countries.  Her internationally acclaimed book, “The Science of Parenting” (Dorling Kindersley), won First Prize in the British Medical Association Medical Book Awards 2007 Popular Medicine section (paperback version entitled “What Every Parent Needs to Know”). The book, endorsed by one of the world’s leading affective neuroscientists, Professor Jaak Panksepp, is the result of ten years research on the long-term effects of adult-child interaction on the developing brain. Dr Sunderland has two doctorates, one in child psychotherapy, thesis entitled ‘The Application of Art and Science to the Psychological Treatment of Children’.

Dr Sunderland was a member of the Early Years Commission, Centre for Social Justice, Westminster, and co-author of the cross party advisory “The Next Generation” (Early Years Commission Report). She is also founder of the “Helping Where it Hurts’ programme which offers free arts therapy to troubled children in Islington Primary schools. She directed the Gulbenkian funded research study, which in liaison with the University of Cambridge School of Education, measured outcomes for this intervention. Dr Sunderland makes TV and radio appearances as a child and parenting expert.

Overall, she is concerned to ensure that parents, teachers and mental health professionals alike, are offered the most up to date psychological and brain science research on how children and young people can be enabled to thrive. She is passionate about social change for a kinder, warmer world.


Mental health statistics for England: prevalence, services and funding | ioe.ac.uk

2 Talking self harm |Cello Group

4 5 6 7 Teacher Wellbeing Index 2020 | educationsupport.org.uk

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