What role should PE teachers play in protecting and building mental health?

mental health

Trigger Warning – Suicide / Self-Harm / Mental Health Illnesses


As a PE teacher since 2004, I have been alarmed by the decline in our student’s mental health through the duration of my career.  I became a Head of Year in 2007 and I would support approximately 3 pupils from 160 per year group with mental health issues.  Excuse me for generalising but these tended to be girls with anxiety and depression.  Fast forward to 2021 and it is closer to 6 per class of 25 with both boys and girls both being affected and younger and younger children being impacted.

Join me as I explore the reasons why in more detail and the creative ways PE departments have used to address this mental health epidemic.

Where are we now?

Intentional self harm is the biggest killer of 15-24 year olds in the UK according to the Association for Young People’s Health report in 2019.  Speaking from first hand experience, each and everyone of these deaths devastates families and the wider communities.  As a country we need to do more to predict and prevent these unnecessary deaths.

So what has triggered this dramatic decline?

There are some frightening statistics coming out of the U.S. since social media companies like facebook have been available on mobile phones from 2011. In that time according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, incidents of self-harm for teenage girls has increased by 62% in girls aged 15-19 and by an enormous 189% for 10-14 year olds with similar increases for suicides. The social psychologist and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt observed a ‘gigantic increase’ in depression and anxiety as social media has seen a dramatic impact on young people’s sense of identity and self-worth, and their ability to connect to others.  There are also few places for young people to escape from the prison of their phones when going through difficult moments.

As a secondary PE teacher & leader in the UK system for the last 17 years, I have witnessed similar frightening increases and it has become an epidemic in our schools which is becoming more and more common and showing no signs of abating particularly since the Covid 19 pandemic.

Feeling Helpless

4 years ago, I vividly remember when three 12 year old girls, Sarah, Phillipa and Amy, were brought to me late to my gymnastics lesson.  The teacher with them explained that the girls were really struggling with anxiety and could they sit out the lesson.  As a Director of Sport, I felt totally helpless that I had no strategies to support them and help them feel better. It prompted me to research this area in more detail so I didn’t have to feel so helpless ever again.

Should it be the PE teacher’s role to improve student wellbeing?

Yes it can be daunting to step away from the traditional method of delivering PE, but when we look at how many young people are suffering and the lengthy waiting times to receive specialist support from stretched and underfunded providers like Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), then PE departments can definitely play a leading role.

I would wholeheartedly argue that PE teachers are extremely well placed to use the power of PE to make a difference in this vitally important area.

Firstly, PE teachers usually have exceptional relationships with their young people enabling children to open up about their mental health in a calm and supportive environment.

PE is no longer a subject where we just need to cater for the top 20% who are sporty kids.  Yes it is important to cater for these students as well but I truly believe that we can cater for both as part of a broad and balanced curriculum. I believe we should be focusing on catering for all students and developing healthy habits to have a long term impact not just at school now but for the rest of their lives.

Secondly, repetitive exercise such as running, walking, swimming and yoga is one of the most proactive ways to reduce anxiety and calm the amygdala. Research into trauma informed practice states that the brain stem is a key part of the brain and if that is anxious or alerted it will trigger the fight, flight or fright response.

Repetitive exercise for a prolonged period of time soothes the brain stem, increases an individual’s window of tolerance, and enables the individual to engage the higher aspects of the brain such as the Limbic brain and then the Cortex brain which allows our children to function more effectively.

By increasing the window of tolerance we are seeing greater staff/student relationships, improved behaviour, more productive learning and more importantly happier young people.

If students aren’t getting these opportunities in PE, then I am unsure where else in school they will receive them.

I believe that PE Departments should be at the forefront of this challenge and leading the way.  We should be the first line of defence as part of a wider school programme that incorporates social, emotional and mental health counsellors, wellbeing zones, safeguarding provision and specialist support from external providers such as CAMHS.

I would love to know your thoughts.

The Solution

As the Covid pandemic kicked off and the country descended into lockdown for the first time, I used the summer of 2020 to find a solution so that I could help my students.

I kept thinking about this question: ‘We wouldn’t wait for a child to become obese to work on their physical fitness so why do we wait for children to suffer mental health difficulties before working on their mental fitness?’

I wanted to be proactive and tap into positive psychology so that children were better placed to be able to cope with difficulties later on.  I researched and studied numerous approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and the Mental Fitness model as well as speaking to leading experts in the field to create a model that would be effective in a secondary school setting.

As the summer wore on, I road tested these concepts on our key worker students and was startled by the impact that it was having on our relationship, their behaviour and learning. It also brought our PE team closer together when we opened up and discussed our own mental health.

As all students returned in September 2020 we made the programme a critical part of our PE recovery programme and used these concepts in PSHE, form times, after school clubs, enrichment programs and on social media so that the wider community could benefit.

This programme has now evolved and been refined into the 9 Step Building Mental Fitness Roadmap.

The 9 Step Building Mental Fitness Roadmap

The Roadmap gives inspirational PE Teachers a proven method to transform student and staff wellbeing across the whole school alongside a differentiated exercise programme designed to meet the needs of your individual students.

It is an early intervention programme for all, that reduces the chances of pupils suffering from anxiety and depression in the future, so that they can thrive academically and personally instead.

In Stage 1: we develop awareness of what building mental fitness is and how we can identify those students who are struggling with their mental health but sneaking under the radar to create a proactive culture around student wellbeing.  Identifying students by using the mental health continuum has been particularly powerful for signposting those in need to expert help from our SEMH Counsellors and beyond.

It has helped us be proactive as a school and identify 3 safeguarding issues that we would never have known about without this check and the 1-2-1 conversions that followed.  We then introduce body scanning and journaling to help students develop self awareness.

Stage 1 – Steps:

  1. Intro to mental fitness -????‍♀️
  2. Identification – ????
  3. Self-awareness -????

In Stage 2: we equip students & staff with a toolbox of self care strategies to build confidence & self kindness, use worries as a positive, raise aspirations, develop healthy habits and help students understand how to access the 4 happiness chemicals.

Stage 2 – Steps:

  1. Confidence and Kindness – ????
  2. Worries As A Positive –  ????
  3. Habits ????
  4. Happiness ????

In Stage 3: we show staff how to embed the programme across the whole school community in 7 different ways to have maximum impact.

Stage 3 – Steps:

  1. Whole School Impact – ????
  2. Next Steps

The Results

The results have been quite staggering with happier young people and staff, calmer behaviour across our school, increases in progress and attainment and attracting new pupils to our schools because of the priority we give to student wellbeing.

94% of students who have studied the unit at City Academy Norwich agree or strongly agree that they have the tools to manage their mental health more effectively.

My mission is to help as many teachers and young people as possible, benefit from this programme. We have set up Future Action to provide a whole school online teacher training course with a comprehensive range of editable resources so schools can create similar programmes within 90 days for all their staff .

Paul Collin, Headteacher at City Academy Norwich, said “It’s crucial, now more than ever to consider how schools and colleges are developing both the academic and the wellbeing of every young person.

At City Academy Norwich we place a core emphasis on every child having the same opportunity in life. Being mentally fit, happy, energised and productive are key attributes that everyone can benefit from having.

Our work with Future Action and the Building Mental Fitness programme has allowed us to ensure we consider a proactive approach to these areas, working with all our young people to become the very best versions of themselves and achieve future successes.”

The schools work around their PE recovery curriculum was a major factor in City Academy Norwich being awarded the Association of Physical Education (afPE) Quality Mark with Distinction in December 2020.

Sarah, Phillipa and Amy

Earlier in this article I talked about feeling helpless when the 3 girls were brought to me.  I am pleased to tell you that they are now thriving and engaged in Year 11 PE and are on track for some fantastic exam results across the whole school and extremely bright futures once they leave us.

How we can help you

I have collaborated with Primary School Specialists to adapt the programme to Key Stage 2 students and we are now partnering with over 30 trailblazing schools to put PE at the frontline of the Mental Health Epidemic in a range of settings from Primary to Secondary, International Schools to Special Schools to embed these transformational strategies and enable PE teachers to have whole school impact.

If you would like to join this movement of inspirational teachers but are not sure where to start, then the Building Mental Fitness course teaches you and your staff how to set up an award winning program with easy to follow videos and editable resources to save you hours of time planning and creating resources.

Why not book a free call to discuss your school’s needs and how we could work in partnership with each other?

To find out more visit our website.

Please quote PEScholar10 to receive a 10% discount if you go on to purchase the course.

About the Author

Neil Moggan

Founder of Future Action, and Director of Sport, Health & PSHE


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