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Mental health impact of racism on young people in schools

Today, the Anna Freud Centre releases a free portfolio of resources for schools to support staff in understanding the mental health impact of racism on children and young people, and to feel more confident in addressing related concerns. The resources were informed by new survey findings[1], including that 88% of young people say racism affects mental health ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’, with only 2% answering ‘not at all’.

The new resources will help staff to build a whole-school approach to anti-racism. They have been developed in collaboration with the Honourable Stuart Lawrence and BLAM (Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health) UK, as well as being informed by the existing evidence base – and the experiences and recommendations of school staff, parents, carers and young people.

Young people responding to the survey listed a number of issues which they felt were problems in their school or college, including:

  • unconscious bias (59%);
  • understanding the impact of racism on mental health (56%);
  • racist language (47%).

In addition:

  • respondents called for schools to ‘call out’ racism and provide firmer sanctions for using racist language or behaviour in school. They also suggested more support for students, zero tolerance policies, education about racism and its effect on people, and more celebration of diverse cultures;
  • most respondents (64%) said they had discussed racism with staff in their school or college, but 36% had not. Only 26% said that their teachers or tutors understand the negative impact of racism on mental health ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’, while 35% said they understand it ‘a little’ or ‘not at all’.

The Department for Education’s recent guidance to schools[2] emphasises the important role that they have in teaching their pupils that prejudice and other forms of discrimination are wrong and prohibited by law; and that racism should be challenged in schools.

Jaime Smith, Director of the Anna Freud Centre’s Schools’ Division, says:

“We need to recognise that experiencing racism can have significant mental health consequences. Young people have told us they want to see racism tackled, openly and in a way which reassures the whole school community that every student is valued and can have a voice to influence change.

“For those children and young people who are on the receiving end of racism or discrimination, directly supporting them is a priority. All staff and school leaders have a critical role to play in this. Our new resources can help schools to develop an anti-racist culture – ensuring better wellbeing and mental health for racially minoritised students and staff. This will help us all to build safe and more supportive whole-school communities.”

The Honourable Stuart Lawrence says:

“As a former teacher, parent and author who passionately advocates for race equality, I am delighted to have collaborated with the Anna Freud Centre on this range of anti-racism and mental health resources for school staff. These resources will support and empower teachers and school leaders to understand, talk about, and address race and racism within the school environment. This, in turn, will support the mental health and wellbeing of our next generation, who are currently students – enabling them to thrive and reach their full potential.”

Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, says:

“Education can play a pivotal role in tackling discrimination in society. Through education, we can start to build a truly inclusive society, changing minds and challenging prejudices. Schools have a unique and vital role to play in promoting equality, diversity and inclusion, and making sure that pupils understand their rights and responsibilities as young citizens of a multicultural nation like the UK.

“Our members consistently raise pupil mental health and wellbeing as one of their top priorities. These new resources will help school staff to understand the mental health impact of racism on children and young people, and build confidence in addressing related issues across the school community.”

The new resources include advice and guidance on representation in the curriculum, staff training, policy templates, case studies with suggestions for celebration activities which involve the whole school community, and suggested support for students and staff. Free e-learning for school staff will be launched by the Anna Freud Centre in April 2022, covering modules such as leading change for anti-racism, working together to be an anti-racist school, and supporting racially minoritised staff. A series of podcasts featuring a variety of expert guests was released in February 2022, to begin this offer to schools and colleges.

Other research from the Anna Freud Centre[3] suggests that the covid pandemic has had a disproportionate mental health impact on children and young people of colour. This may be related to a range of factors, including discrimination, institutional racism and health and economic inequalities, which make it harder to access support.

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