How staff and young people relationships impact school mental health self-referral

By Barwick, A., Chigwada, S., Giecco, M., Seeney, E., Turner, I., & McPartlan, D.

    How staff and young people relationships impact school mental health self-referral

    About the Author

    Barwick, A., Chigwada, S., Giecco, M., Seeney, E., Turner, I., & McPartlan, D.
    Secondary Students & a Mentor
    Newcastle upon Tyne, ENG, GB
    1 Article Published
    Barwick, A., Chigwada, S., Giecco, M., Seeney, E., Turner, I., & McPartlan, D.

    The young research team is made up of a self-selecting group of secondary school students aged between 16 and 18, including Barwick, Chigward, Giecco, Seeney, and Turner. Their teacher, Mr. McPartlan, helped editing the paper. The school they attend is a co-educational comprehensive school, catering for young people aged from 11-18 years of age. It is located in Cumbria in the north of England, UK.

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    Project Summary

    This is a follow up to a research project that looked at the efficacy of a school’s mental health strategy. A young research team (YRT) collaborated with a researcher to investigate whether relationships between staff and young people impacted whether young people would come forward for mental health support. The YRT worked independently with younger participants who were from the Pupil Premium cohort, a group of young people identified as coming from economically challenging backgrounds. Over a number of months, the YRT and participants met to collect data and inform the research. The researcher also met regularly with the YRT to reflect, plan and analyse the data before working on this paper. The findings suggested that due to trust issues some young people did not have the confidence in staff to be able to self-refer. They did not trust teachers or the school and would rather not have to approach staff should they need support. Bearing in mind many schools promote self-referrals for young people when a need is identified, these findings are significant for schools looking to support young people’s mental health.

    Project Context

    The young research team (YRT) are members of a school sixth form (aged between 16 and 18 years of age), based in the North of England in the UK. They volunteered to work with a researcher from the University of Cumbria to investigate how relationships impact self-referral in school. The YRT were keen to get involved in this research to help both the participants and also to help the school improve their mental health strategy. This was also an opportunity for the team to learn new research skills and contribute to school improvement.

    How Staff and Young People Relationships Impact School Mental Health Self-Referral


    We started the research off the back of another young research team who had previously worked with participants prior to us. They conducted research into the efficacy of the whole school mental health strategy (McPartlan et al., 2021). One of the findings that required further investigation was the role relationships played in young people seeking help from staff in school. Our goal was, therefore, to find out more about student/teacher relationships. We sought to do this through weekly meetings with individual groups of younger participants taken from the school’s year 7 cohort. The Young research team (YRT) was a small group of sixth-form students who collaborated with Dave McPartlan, the researcher who had conducted the original research as part of his PhD. Our plan was to gain information from activities on how participants felt about their relationships with teachers in school. This, in turn, meant we had to build relationships ourselves with the participants to gain their trust, which we found to be a very important factor. The ultimate aim of this research is to present the findings to the headteacher for consideration. As school students, we, the young researchers, are keen to improve the school environment in order to enhance the school experience for young people. Relationships within school are important for students to keep a positive mindset. This research process, which included the process of relationship building with the participants, has grown our confidence and has enabled us to explore their views that we felt reflected many of our own. This, in turn, helped us find common issues related to student/teacher relationships; these will be elaborated on later in the paper.

    Evolving Method

    In order to gain the trust of the participants and to gain insight into what they felt was important, we used a variety of methods; these are explored in greater detail below.  In the beginning, our aim, as researchers, was to build trust with the participants. To do this, we needed to get to know them a bit better. We created a ‘getting to know you’ sheet for them to complete. This is something we completed ourselves as we thought it important that they know about who we are and what our interests are. The sheet involved questions such as what are your hobbies? do you have any pets? as well as a variety of other questions. This exercise was great for building relationships between the participants and us. The purpose of this exercise was twofold. Firstly, we wanted to do this in order to make them feel comfortable talking to us and also to ensure that, as a fun activity, they enjoyed the sessions. The importance of this was to build a trusting relationship between us, the Young research team, and the participants. After these introductory sessions, we decided to start exploring mental health issues. We kept the ‘fun’ principle by asking them to construct a mind map. This was to be focused on their understanding of mental health. We did this as we wanted to get an idea of what they knew about the topic of mental health and where we could go from there with future sessions. The participants responded mainly with negative answers about mental health, such as anxiety, low mood and depression.

    To try and broaden participants’ understanding, we attempted to re-word the task. The following week we gave the participants a sheet with the title ‘Effects of mental health’, and the categories we included were ‘mental’, ‘social’ and ‘physical’. We recognised the importance, for the research, of the participant’s understanding of mental health and that there were positive aspects of mental health as well as negative ones. This exercise resulted in positive outcomes, and the participant’s responses included feeling good about themselves and enjoying school as things that affect their mental health positively. However, there were still some negatives, such as poor mental health makes you not want to exercise and not want to leave the house.

    Although we got a wider range of responses, we still didn’t broaden it as much as we wanted. We, therefore, included further prompts for the participants that included physical things that could affect mental health. We wanted to develop this further and therefore drew on our own school experiences and came up with the following four categories: – teachers- home- school toilets and- appearance. Each of these impacted our mental health during our time in school. In pairs, each of the participants was asked to comment on one of the areas; the results were interesting. The area which prompted the greatest number of responses was the ‘teachers’ category. The participants said that teachers were “too strict”, “annoying”, and “didn’t support” them. They went on to say that this made them feel ‘stressed and feel nervous’ around them. From these results and since this area of ‘teachers’ is such a big topic that is linked to mental health in school with the students, we took the decision to explore this area further and to dig a little deeper. We decided to ask some specific questions that linked to our topic of relationships between students and teachers. We asked the participants if they would go to a teacher for help. Most responses were negative, and comments included: “We don’t trust the teachers and would prefer to tell a family member”; “It would depend on the situation/problem I had”; “I feel that they wouldn’t do anything about it if I told them, and they wouldn’t deal with it right”; “I don’t feel like there is anyone I would go to, and in general, I wouldn’t want to.”

    Findings on the Relationships of Teachers and Students

    To develop our teacher-focus further, we completed our next activity by getting one of the students to lie on a big sheet of paper and another student to draw around them. We then said that the outline on the paper was to represent a general teacher. We drew a line down the middle of the outline and split the teacher page in half; one side said good teacher and the other said, bad teacher. The participants added comments to each side, and these included the following responses.  

    Bad teacher side: not listening to the students; having favourites; teachers shouting; boring lessons. 

    Good teacher side: listening to students; being kind; helping when students are struggling with work; being fair.

    We decided to repeat the activity, but this time to focus on the student. This is what the participants reported.  

    Figure 1

    Good student/bad student exercise 

    Bad student:

    • teacher’s pet
    • doesn’t do work
    • gets told off often
    • mean to others

    Good student:

    • good behavior
    • being organized
    • listening to teachers
    • being nice to others  

    As our next step, we wanted to figure out how the behaviour of teachers impacted responses if they were doing either positive or negative things. We did this by doing a gap-fill and a poster exercise.   

    Figure 2

    Poster exercise 

    These are some of the responses the participants gave us: 

    • teachers being fun leads to students being happy
    • boring lessons sees students being lazy.
    • students who are ready to make mistakes need teacher support

    Other activities we also completed included card games that helped us categorise ‘good and bad’ mental health and a hexagon exercise linking topics to mental health in school. We also had sessions where we would discuss a certain topic. 

    A Dream School and School Improvement

    We also completed a Dream school activity where we got the students to create a school which they thought would help mental health.  

    Figure 3

    Dream school exercise 

    The response included the following:

    • no exams
    • no homework
    • sit where they wanted in seating plans

    This pointed out what they must feel worried about, and it would be a dream if the school didn’t have those things. One of the final activities we completed was asking them overall how we could improve our school. We asked them to tell us about what good things they think are already in place in the school. They mentioned 6 form mental health ambassadors, us as researchers and mental health awareness weeks as beneficial to the school and promoting mental health and help. They said it’s good that we have these in place, but they also commented about some problems with them. These included such things as not knowing who the mental health ambassadors were. We also asked what else could be done in school to improve support of mental health, and the students said we should have things in place to calm people down in lessons if they feel stressed. An example was having permission to step outside for a few minutes if they feel overwhelmed and having a member of staff to talk to that they feel comfortable with. In summary, we, as researchers, completed weekly meetings with our participants. Within doing this, we did activities to evaluate the mental health support in school and how teacher-student relationships impact student mental health. During this period, we built trusting relationships between us, the researchers and the younger participants. Overall, our main finding was that teacher and student relationship has a big role in students’ mental health and worries in school.   

    Evaluation of methods

    We found that certain activities got more responses, particularly when they were much more interactive and exciting for the participants. The sessions that were more discussion/question based didn’t have as much interest from the participants and therefore gave us poorer results. When we first started meeting with the participants, they were subdued and tentative, often reluctant to answer questions, especially when they were about such a personal topic. Through trial and error, we concluded that jumping in with big questions about their mental health would not get us quality interaction or response from them. We, therefore, needed to have more light-hearted and fun sessions where they could all interact with each other and do some writing or drawing about their school experiences. To overcome the obstacle of the participants not speaking openly, we decided to do tasks that got their attention and piqued their interest. In this way, they felt like they actually wanted to get involved in activities such as drawing around a person, labelling them and talking about how they felt about teachers. The longer we worked with the participants, the more comfortable they felt speaking with us about their general lives in and out of school and some mental health problems they might have been having. 


    As researchers participating in this project, it has made us realise that the participants within the school don’t feel comfortable speaking to teachers if any issues were to arise within their personal lives. A common pattern that occurred within these activities was the lack of trust students have regarding their relationship with their teachers; students also confessed that they would rather open up to their age mates rather than an adult within the school. However, to try and resolve this issue, we believe we need to ask young people what would encourage them to reach out to teachers in the future should they need support. Being a part of this project has enabled us, the researchers, to broaden our communication skills with a wide range of age groups, increase our confidence and strengthen our ability to listen and see situations from multiple perspectives. This research has benefited us as we have had the opportunity to investigate ways of improving student-staff relationships. This is something we believe could well result in improving the school environment for all. It has also enabled the participants to feel as though they have a voice, giving them the power to make a difference. It has been an exciting journey, as we have now developed relationships with students who feel they can converse with us on a number of levels; this is another example of the benefits of this type of research, demonstrating its overall positive impact. Mental health has been the key theme throughout these months of research. As well as discussing student-teacher relationships, our interactions have allowed participants to release to us the daily struggles that they may face. In exchange, we offered advice and guidance on whom they may want to consider speaking to. In general, these conversations have highlighted the importance of mental health, especially among the younger participants who aren’t as familiar with secondary school or haven’t yet grasped the concept of this their new environment. This project doesn’t only express the idea that the students are finding that teachers can be difficult to approach, but we have also explored the idea that students can also be difficult in some circumstances. Finding a relevant equilibrium would be the next step to achieving a functional system of communication. With the information that we have gathered, we are going to present the evidence that we have gathered to the head-teacher. The head-teacher can then decide what steps to take regarding the relationship between students and teachers and what to do to make all young people feel they’re able to speak to a staff member when the need arises. 


    We believe their needs to be a school focus on relationships between staff and young people. All young people need to have an adult in school they can go to if they require help. The school needs to explore ways in which young people can build relationships with staff. Is there an opportunity to increase the number of 1:1 meetings between a young person and a staff member? There was a feeling amongst the young people that without knowing staff better, trust is unlikely to be built.

    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Barwick, A., Chigwada, S., Giecco, M., Seeney, E., Turner, I., & McPartlan, D. (2023, May 21). How staff and young people relationships impact school mental health self-referral. Social Publishers Foundation.

    Copyrighted by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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