We can talk about mental health

Barts Health NHS trust shares how they have given their staff the tools they need to confidently address mental health with children and young people.

Supporting the health and wellbeing of more than half a million children and young people living in east London is important to Barts Health NHS Trust and to me.

We run five hospitals and very often our focus is on the physical health of the patient in front of us. But if that’s all we do, we neglect our vital role in supporting the mental and emotional health of every child and young person in our care.

Since starting in my post just over a year ago as Director of Nursing for Babies, Children and Young People, I heard from many staff that they are caring for more children with mental health problems than ever before. The staff also told me that they lacked confidence and understanding to care and meet young people’s needs, especially when they present in crisis. Staff had received some training around mental health problems but it wasn’t enough. So we decided to do something about it.

We have developed a completely new way of training our staff to have the knowledge and confidence they need.

We started by surveying our staff; the results showed a low level of confidence but a real willingness to learn more.

1 in 5 said they encountered a child or young person with mental health needs almost all the time. They told us self harm/overdose, depression and anxiety are the top 3 mental health problems they encounter.

One member of staff told us that they “feel we let our patients down. Not through being terrible people but by our lack of knowledge and understanding… I do worry about our nursing and medical staff not a lot older than some of our patients and their ability/resilience to cope in these situations and to provide the best possible care for this vulnerable group of patients and their families.”

So we did something quite unique. We worked with young advisors to find out what hospital staff needed to know about children with mental health problems and we created, with the advisors, a framework of core competences (what every professional should know as a minimum) and a training package to meet these competencies. The training was then delivered by mental health experts and young advisors.

To date this training has been delivered to over 130 children’s nurses, health care assistants, doctors, ward clerks and other professionals.

All this work has been done in collaboration between professionals and young people.

This project was a success for me personally the moment one nurse felt more confidence to ask a young person “how are you feeling today?” and I know it has done so much more.

I feel very privileged to have played a part in developing the training and I would like it see shared with other hospitals across the Capital and further afield.

I would like to thank Health Education England’s local team in North Central and East London for funding and supporting this work. I would also like to thank Common Room, Healthy Teen Minds and CORC for making a good idea into a great reality.

A big thanks must go to Barts Health staff who have enthusiastically embraced this work and I hope learnt loads.

After taking part in the training myself I know that now We Can Talk about mental health more confidently and recognise our vital role in supporting the mental and emotional health of every child and young person in our care.

So please do watch our film, read our report, and join in the conversation #WeCanTalk


Michelle Johnson

Michelle Johnson is a dual trained children’s and adult nurse who has spent over half of her career working in children’s community health services, including as director of nursing in adult and child community health and mental health services. She was a Florence Nightingale Children & Young People’s Leadership Scholar in 2012 and has a MSc in Child Health.

Michelle is currently the director of nursing (babies, children & young people) for Barts Health NHS Trust in North East London. She has professional responsibility for nursing care across the Trust for neonates, children and young people cared for at home, in community settings as well as in hospital. As such Michelle holds a unique position to influence children’s health across the whole pathway of care and demonstrate system leadership.

Recently Michelle chaired a panel on behalf of Healthy London Partnership to draft London Out of Hospital Standards for Children and Young People.