Are you safeguarding for good mental health?

The current definition of Safeguarding is inclusive, ambitious and broad. It is not a concept that is interchangeable with Child Protection, rather it includes Child Protection (this is one of the most common misconceptions we encounter in our work). Safeguarding includes any aspect of care or engagement of children and young people that enables them to achieve their fullest potential in every way. As the current statutory guidance states clearly:

‘Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is defined for the purposes of this guidance as protecting children from maltreatment, preventing impairment of children’s health or development and ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care and taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.’

Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018

This broad definition of safeguarding impresses on every member of the children’s workforce the need to promote holistic care of children. For instance, we need to be aware that children can suffer from a range of mental health issues that may, or may not be, directly related to abuse, but that are still acutely important to acknowledge and address.

Safeguarding children therefore includes ensuring that children’s mental health is a top priority in our settings. The recently published Childline Annual Review 2018 – 2019 provides us with some information on the scope of the issue. The report tells us top three concerns young people were counselled about were:

– mental and emotional health
– family relationships; and
– suicidal thoughts and feelings.

The top three concerns on the Childline message boards were:
– sex and sexual health
– self-harm; and
– relationships.

There were over 109,000 counselling sessions about mental and emotional health and wellbeing issues (including self-harm and suicidal thoughts or feelings), 5,100 counselling sessions about loneliness and over 5,900 counselling sessions about confidence issues. Compared to this, there were over 19,800 counselling sessions where a child or young person’s main concern was abuse (this includes sexual, physical or emotional abuse and neglect) and 4,500 counselling sessions about child sexual exploitation. For further information, read the full review.

Other recent reports

The Children’s Society also recently published a report looking at children and young people’s views of mental health support, and where they would go for help if they had concerns about their feelings or behaviours. Findings show that: 58% said that they had asked for help because of concerns about their feelings and behaviours, whereas 8% of young people indicated they had not sought help even though they did have worries. Of those who said they had asked for help, 77% said they had gone to close family such as siblings or parents, followed by 38% who were helped by friends and 36% who were supported by an adult at school such as a teacher. The fact that over a third of children felt they could be supported by a professional at school again reinforces our responsibilities to safeguard children from mental ill health. Read the report: Reaching out: children and young people’s views of mental health support (PDF)

Warning signs that a child might have a mental health condition include:

  • Mood changes
  • Intense feelings
  • Behaviour changes
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Physical symptoms (including self harm marks, headaches, illness)
  • Physical harm
  • Substance abuse

Most seriously, children with mental health problems can sometimes threaten suicide. Whenever a child expresses suicidal feelings, this must be taken extremely seriously and reported to the Designated Safeguarding Lead on the same day the professional is made aware of them. Signs that a child may be having suicidal feelings or thinking about suicide, include:

  • becoming more depressed or withdrawn, spending a lot of time by themselves
  • an increase in dangerous behaviours like taking drugs or drinking alcohol
  • becoming obsessed with ideas of suicide, death or dying, which could include internet searches
  • saying things like “I’d be better off dead”, “No one would miss me”, “I just wish I wasn’t here anymore”.

Ways to help a child who’s struggling include:

  • giving them the opportunity to let you know what is wrong. As in all disclosure, the following words are useful: ‘I see you are _ [whatever the sign is e.g. have difficulty concentrating etc], tell me about it’;
  • letting them know you’re there for them and are on their side;
  • being patient and staying calm and approachable, even if their behaviour upsets you;
  • recognising that their feelings are valid and letting them know it’s okay for them to be honest about what it’s like for them to feel this way; and
  • thinking of healthy ways to cope you could do together, like yoga, breathing exercises or mindfulness.

In October 2019 the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition and Centre for Mental Health published a report looking at approaches to children’s and young people’s mental health and wellbeing in educational settings in the UK. Recommendations include: education departments should commission a review of the impact of the exam system and the ‘teach to test’ culture on the mental health of young people; and education inspectorates should look beyond attainment and overall performance and instead assess schools on their efforts to promote pupils’ wellbeing and development. Read the report: Making the grade: how education shapes young people’s mental health (PDF)

Key flash points and common issues


Transitions back into school or from one setting to another (common at this time of year) are times when every child can feel very challenged. Beacon House therapeutic services and trauma team have a wide-range of resources on their website, including one about managing transitions. Top tips for managing transitions here:


One of the major causes of mental health problems in children is bullying. Professionals sometimes underestimate the profound harm that bullying can have on children, particularly in regard to their mental health. Late last year the children’s charity Ditch the Label has published its annual bullying survey for 2019. Findings from survey results (from 2,347 children and young people aged 12-20 across the UK) include: 22% said they were bullied in the past 12 months; of those bullied, 62% were bullied by a classmate and 37% by someone at school they did not know, and 33% said that they had suicidal thoughts, while 41% were left feeling anxious after being bullied. For more information read: The annual bullying survey 2019

Similarly the Anti-Bullying Alliance in November 2019 published a report looking at children’s and young people’s experiences of face to face and online bullying. Findings from a survey of more than 1,000 11 to 16-year-olds again testify to the huge scale of bullying and include: 24% said they have been bullied once a week or more during the last six months; 11% said they have missed school due to bullying and 19% have avoided social media and online gaming because of bullying. A literature review into how to address bullying in school and online was carried out as part of the research. For more information read: Change starts with us (PDF)

A group of secondary school teachers recently made a powerful video highlighting the impact of the bullying they suffered at school, to the pupils they now teach. Staff at Perins School in New Alresford, Hampshire, took part in the emotional film that has been posted on the school website and shown to students in assemblies and personally I found it extremely moving and strongly urge you to take a few minutes out of your day to watch it, and consider sharing it with colleagues and children (it really is that good!):

Finally a brand new resource recently came to my attention that could really make the difference in helping professionals promote good mental health in children (as well as other aspects of good practice). These are a series of short videos on, a new, video-based, social discussion platform. It provides a safe place to discuss diverse subjects and share valuable information about a range of important topics, including mental health. Psychiatrists, mental health advocates and experts in the field share personal stories and experiences of a range of mental health and neurodiversive conditions such as depression, eating disorders and trauma. MyPOVonline is very easy to use, and once registered users can comment, share posts and upload their own video point of view (POV) and share posts. Find out more:

It’s important to look after yourself

A final note to take care of yourself and get support if you need to. Try not to blame yourself for what’s happening with the children in your care and to stay hopeful about children’s recovery from mental ill health. Supporting good mental health in children starts by developing our own mental health and therefore our ability to effectively safeguard.