Investing in boys’ mental health must be a priority for schools

Deputy head at Merchiston on cultivating boys’ mental health awareness and wellbeing

Last year, a survey published by NHS Digital found that one in six children has a probable mental health problem, while 14% of boys aged 16-24 are known to experience depression or anxiety each year. The consequences of this are severe, with men making up 75% of suicides in the UK.

These statistics make for distressing reading and are not facts I take pleasure in sharing. Nonetheless, they do go some way towards emphasising the mental health crisis facing young people in the UK.

As the deputy head of wellbeing at Merchiston, I see this through the prism of an all-boys school. It is here that boys develop their social skills, gain self-awareness, and learn to deal with challenges and setbacks. As teachers, it is our aim to guide students to navigate these experiences with a positive and healthy mindset in preparation for adult life.

Boys often face pressure to behave and look in a certain way, one that reflects the strong masculine icons presented in the media._Danny Rowlands, Merchiston

When it comes to educating young men, this is particularly important.

Boys often face pressure to behave and look in a certain way, one that reflects the strong masculine icons presented in the media. The traditional emphasis placed on male strength, confidence and responsibility can have potentially damaging effects on their sense of self and positive emotional development.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, traditional gender norms can prevent men from opening up about their personal struggles and seeking out help, instead resorting to harmful coping mechanisms such as alcohol.

Giving boys the space to express their feelings and navigate their emotions without fear of judgement or recrimination is therefore crucial to their mental wellbeing.

Cultivating mental wellbeing

I come across this regularly in my role as Deputy Head of Wellbeing at Merchiston – students who are stressed or anxious benefit hugely from having someone to talk to about their concerns.

Having designated, trained staff on site to whom the boys can turn is incredibly reassuring for them and allows them to examine and express themselves in a safe space, free from judgement or criticism. By supporting young men in this way, we empower them to support themselves when experiencing life’s challenges.

This is our goal at Merchiston. Our wellbeing team has taken extensive measures to ensure that the best systems are in place to support our students.

This is crucial, not only to manage mental health concerns for an individual in our care but just as importantly, to consistently promote good mental health and wellbeing at school.

By placing wellbeing at the centre of our curriculum, we provide boys with the tools to manage difficult situations and overcome obstacles with a practical mindset, fostering positive mental wellness.

The universal promotion of wellbeing sits at the heart of our strategy and a focus on positive psychology and the 12 Happiness Habits helps to embed practical and active steps which our students can take to ensure good mental health.

Mental health awareness

 Our programme of personal, social and health education is vital to this, and teaches the boys how to maintain their overall health through mindfulness exercises, nutrition, physical activity, and social relationships.

Moreover, it raises their awareness of the potentially harmful impact of excessive screen time, peer pressure and dangerous risk-taking behaviour.These sessions encourage the boys to speak together about the challenges they are exposed to and promote an overall focus on better mental health.

In this way, the boys are better able to establish routines that boost their wellbeing and support fellow students who may appear to be struggling.

‘…educating boys on how to cultivate mental wellbeing, and creating a healthy, supportive community, places students in the best position to mature into healthy, well-rounded adults’_Danny Rowlands, Merchiston


The sense of community and strong relationships between students are pivotal to the ongoing happiness of the boys in our care.

The importance of social connection for mental wellbeing cannot be underestimated, which is why we prioritise fostering community at Merchiston through our house system, which allows boys to develop close relationships with their peers, supported by experienced teams of house staff, as they progress through school.

This framework enables students to become fully integrated into the school community, and what’s more, provides them with positive role models, in the form of prefects, to look to for guidance.

Mental health policy

Sadly, in some cases, a child will experience mental health problems that require professional help. In these situations, it is critical that the school responds quickly and offers support in line with guidance from the family and medical professionals. A clear staged intervention model, informed by the Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) framework and the national practice model, will reassure both parents and students.

As rates of mental health disorders in young people increase in the UK, schools need to reassess how they support the mental wellbeing of their students.

Implementing robust systems to guide young men, educating boys on how to cultivate mental wellbeing, and creating a healthy, supportive community, places students in the best position to mature into healthy, well-rounded adults.

This, above academic success, sporting prowess, or school rankings, should be the primary goal for any school.

Read more about the IET World Mental Health Day campaign

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