The mental health and wellbeing of pupils in schools is big news at the moment. Teachers regularly work with pupils presenting with mental health issues including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harming behaviours and panic attacks with the key contributors identified being family problems, exposure to violence and abuse, exam stress and social media – however rarely are teachers given training on how best to support these pupils.

So, is this something that schools in the Middle East need to be concerned about? Put simply, yes. Poor mental health impacts on pupils’ ability to make friends and, perhaps of more concern to schools, leads to a lack of concentration in class or full participation. Longer term consequences show increased risk behaviours, suicidal thoughts and substance misuse. We also know that, whilst less talked about, studies indicate that around 16% of pupils in the Middle East are suffering from mental health issues, higher than the global average.

Key actions which schools should take to improve their pupils’ mental health and wellbeing include raising awareness of the issues amongst both staff and pupils and employing school-based counsellors (or links to external counselling). However, raising awareness of the issues goes hand-in-hand with the need to put support in place and many pupils do not want to talk to a school counsellor about the things that are troubling them.

Peer mentoring is another string to add to your bow. It is a youth–focused solution to addressing low level mental health and wellbeing issues, giving young people the opportunity to talk to another young person and find solutions together.

The young people being mentored (mentees) benefit from having access to non-judgmental, age-appropriate guidance and support. The peer mentors benefit from the opportunity to take on a role of responsibility, enhance their CV and contribute to their school community and schools ultimately reap the benefit of having pupils who are able to thrive.

Peer mentoring programmes, nevertheless, require planning and support.

  • Peer mentors need to be recruited – selecting the most able or best behaved pupils isn’t always helpful, as those who have struggled and come through it often have a lot to offer their peers.
  • Peer mentors need to be trained – in a range of communication skills, an understanding of boundaries and safeguarding (e.g. when do they need to share concerns with an adult?) and given the opportunity to practise their skills in a safe environment.
  • All pupils need to know about the programme and trust it. They need to know how to access the service when they need it and be clear about their, and their mentors, commitment.
  • Peer mentors need to be supported – the role can be emotionally draining and it is important that the mentors are given support and supervision on a regular basis as well as ad-hoc opportunities to be able to share anything that is causing them immediate concern.
  • Records need to be kept – as with any other school-based intervention, you will want to know how many mentors accessed the service, what the issues they presented with and what they thought of the support they received.
  • Mentors need to know how and when to signpost onto other services and how to close the relationship – mentors are not trained counsellors or therapists and sometimes their mentee will need specialised and professional help. Peer mentoring should only last for as long as it is useful and should never allow either the mentor or the mentee to become dependent on the other. So – set clear time frames for review and ensure that the relationship only continues for as long as it needs to.

By: Yvonne Richards

[1] Mental Health Care in Saudi Arabia: Past, Present and Future (Harold G. Koenig, Faten Al Zaben, Mohammad Gamal Sehlo, Doaa Ahmed Khalifa, Mahmoud Shaheen Al Ahwal, Naseem Akhtar Qureshi, Abdulhameed Abdullah Al-Habeeb) Open Journal of Psychiatry, 2014
[2] Adolescents in Arab countries: Health statistics and social context (Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer) DIFI Family Research and Proceedings, 2014