BLOG: How mentally healthy schools could tackle declining wellbeing

Chris Wright, Head of Wellbeing at the Youth Sport Trust, discusses how a Greater Manchester collaboration could create a blueprint for addressing the decline in young people’s wellbeing on Mental Health Awareness Week.

We have often highlighted that physical activity boosts emotional wellbeing, reduces anxiety and improves mood.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, it is alarming to see how ‘the physical’ is being overlooked when schools look to address declining emotional wellbeing in young people.

The recent Green Paper on Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health focuses on mental health champions, school mental health teams and quicker referrals. It is easy to forget that many of the solutions to improving young people’s physical, emotional and social wellbeing are already in the gift of what a school currently provides… we have sometimes just forgotten how effective an active, happy school can be!


Statistically three young people in every classroom will have a diagnosable mental health condition and one in seven young people aged 15-years-old report low life satisfaction. Recently, broader wellbeing issues have become more prominent as a root cause to mental health issues. Aspects such as loneliness, poor body confidence, stress and anxiety are highlighted every day in the media. We need to address these wellbeing issues starting with inactivity and poor lifestyle behaviours to prevent the inevitable knock on effect to poor mental health.

The Youth Sport Trust is making a tangible difference to young people’s wellbeing. As a result of our research, insight and delivery through programmes such as Get Exam Fit, Girls Active and My Personal Best and our national partnerships with Young Minds and the New Economics Foundation; we now have an increased understanding of what wellbeing issues persist in young people. We know poor mental health is as a result of declining wellbeing and how poor wellbeing prevents young people from realising their potential academically and in life.

So, we need a different approach. We need an approach that puts physical activity and positive lifestyle choices back at the forefront of positive wellbeing. We need to listen to young people and equip them to support their own wellbeing needs and those of their peers. We want to assist schools in using physical activity to develop wellbeing and prevent mental health issues. We aim to provide strategic leadership that brings together sport, health and education to address the needs of young people.


Young people with poor wellbeing and help schools make sense of everything that is on offer. To achieve this, we have developed a new six-month pilot with physical activity and peer mentoring at the heart of a collaborative approach to improving the wellbeing and mental health of young people across Greater Manchester. We want to show that physical activity and positive lifestyle choices helps to build personal assets and is fundamental to improving wellbeing; building confidence and skills around resilience and self-talk.


The 31 schools in the pilot will be the first to benefit from specialist support for both pupils and teachers in the country. Athletes such as World Champion Thai boxer Rachael Mackenzie will work with young people across the schools including special educational needs and pupil referral units.

Students will develop a wellbeing training plan. They will be coached in key life skills such as growing self-esteem, learning creative thinking and coping strategies to reduce stress and anxiety. They will understand how physical activity and improving lifestyle habits such as diet, sleep and hydration will help to reduce anxiety, enhance wellbeing, and improve their attainment. They will be supported by a group of trained and adept peer mentors who will work alongside these students to support them on their wellbeing journey.


The pilot is a collaboration between YST, the Alliance for Learning Teaching School (part of Bright Futures Educational Trust), 42nd Street and Place2Be funded by Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership. Each organisation is bringing their unique IP to ensure we have a strong model for training, supporting and resourcing schools to tackling this issue. We hope that by taking an innovative approach to addressing declining wellbeing through physical activity and lifestyle support for students, we can combat the rising statistics around young people’s mental health. It is encouraging to be working in a genuine partnership that acknowledges the respective roles and expertise that each organisation brings. It is even more encouraging to see Greater Manchester acknowledging the evidence that addressing both the physical and emotional needs of young people is more effective in preventing mental health issues in the long-term.

Panel Q&A

Lisa Fathers, a YST Headteacher Ambassador, Director of Teaching School & Partnerships BFET and a National Trainer MHFA England, gives her views on this project.

How important is the physical wellbeing aspect of this pilot?

The physical wellbeing element of the pilot is absolutely crucial. We want to move away from thinking about health of the body and mind as being separate – they are critically linked. Healthy bodies mean healthy minds.

What is the feedback from teachers and young people taking part?

It is still early days but the feedback from those involved has been great. They have loved working with the YST Athlete Mentors like Rachael MacKenzie. They said they have learnt a lot from this and been inspired through their achievements. Everyone is really excited about it.

What are you most excited about?

I am most excited about engaging schools and the penny dropping on the role that physical activity can play in a child’s wellbeing and what we can learn from sport. Another thing that I think is great is that this is a brand new area of CPD for teachers – they will receive a whole host of training around mental health and because they will see the athletes working with children they will understand even more the crucial role that physical activity plays in positive wellbeing.

Is there any advice that you would give to schools looking to get involved?

We will be doing thorough analysis and evaluation after the initial pilot so I ask that schools stay tuned in, listen and engage with us. We hope to impact across the whole of Greater Manchester through this approach. Get Exam Fit is at the heart of the package of support being offered in Greater Manchester to help students build in confidence, manage their physical and emotional wellbeing and achieve their potential. For more information on this and our other athlete mentor programmes go to  and

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