I’ll admit that, back when I took my first tentative steps into an Essex based secondary school in late 2007, I wasn’t aware of the scale of the mental health and self-esteem issues befalling young people in the UK. In some ways I’m grateful for this since, if I had, I might have been too overwhelmed to even attempt to tackle it.
As it was, I assumed that the first few schools to clasp me to their respective bosoms must have had unusually high instances of eating disorders and self-harm. When this proved to be untrue, I thought perhaps the particular area might for some reason be a hotbed for mental illness. It took me a couple of years to realise that this is a UK-wide problem and one which doesn’t discriminate according to affluence.
Whilst the types of mental illness being experienced, or the way they manifest at least, may differ from county to county, you’re just as likely to find a mental illness epidemic in an independent school in Surrey as you are in a comprehensive in an inner city.
In light of this observation, I was shocked when I learned that more young men are committing suicide in the North East than anywhere else in England and that the number of children self harming in the region is twice the national average. When I spoke to Verity Marshall, who runs a business that introduces wellbeing programmes into schools in Gateshead, she told me that lack of training was a big part of the problem. Most training opportunities for professionals, she told me, are in the South of the country.
Additionally, according to Verity, cuts to services in the area are taking their toll, meaning that care for mental health issues, particularly for children and young people, is increasingly patchy and sporadic. Whilst this is arguably true for the entire country, she believes the phenomenon is especially pronounced in the North East.
The SCHOOLS NorthEast initiative is, therefore, both crucial and timely. Teachers and other professionals in the area are, it would appear, gasping for resources and expertise in the field of mental health. In the words of Baz Lurhman ‘my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience’, yet since that advice encompasses knowledge gleaned from working in 250 UK schools with 50,000+ young people, I shall dispense (some of) this advice, now.
- Make it Age Appropriate
I have predominantly worked with teenagers and despite them (rather alarmingly) assuring me that they are ‘stuck in their ways, now’ I am always keen not exclude year 11s and sixth form from the conversation. So often, pastoral care takes a significant nose dive after year 9 when the attitude can be rather ‘right, you’re doing important exams now, enough fannying about with this fluffy stuff’. This wilfully neglects the fact that it’s just when you’re doing important exams and making decisions which will impact your future that you need the ‘fluffy stuff’ most of all.
Teenagers have, as I rather clumsily name it in my book ‘Fundamentals – A Guide for Parents and Teachers on Self-Esteem’ ‘the finest b*llsh*t detector known to man’. Beware of scaremongering and inauthenticity. They know that not everyone who takes drugs dies, just as not everyone who sexts goes to prison or finds themselves unemployable. Of course potential consequences should be discussed, but teens are creatures who like to dwell in the present and it’s far better to talk about smaller, more tangible emotional struggles that they can relate to.
Having said that, one can be too candid. One of the founding principles of my lessons is that they are never ‘instructional’. I do not teach students how to self-harm or engage in eating disordered behaviour and I never enter into specifics about weights, implements or calorie consumption. Talk about why’s not how’s.
For primary aged children who haven’t yet developed ‘critical faculty’ my belief is that issues should never be addressed directly. There is so much potential to traumatise and do more harm than good. We’ve seen this with instances of well-meaning nutrition lessons being given to 5 year olds, resulting in fear of certain foods or even, counterintuively, the desire to over eat ‘naughty’ foods. Young children do not deal in subtlety, only in absolutes so we must DO (introduce healthy foods into the canteen, more regular PE lessons) rather than TALK.
I believe there would be untold value in introducing self-esteem building games and simple mindfulness techniques into primary school classrooms. Additionally, I’d like to see young children learning ’emotional vocabulary’ (particularly boys) so that they are able to name all of their feelings.
- Make it Universal
One of my main missions as Mental Health Champion is to convey that mental health is relevant to everyone, because we all have a mind. We’re all aware of the basics for maintaining physical health – eating healthy foods and exercising regularly for example – but do we know our mental equivalents? If we did, perhaps we might cure before prevention is needed, certainly when it comes to the four most common mental illnesses experienced by under-25s (anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm).
With this in mind, I try to keep my lessons as universal as possible. After all, it’s a rare person who could survive the stress and pressure of modern life without it having any impact whatsoever. Whilst 1 in 4 people will statistically experience a mental illness, we all have a mental health.
- Take a Whole School Approach.
This is not something that can be solved in an hour long assembly and my job simply wouldn’t be possible without continued support from teachers to reinforce key messages and continue the conversations our lessons begin.
There are so many lessons in which a discussion on mental health could be relevant. English, history, religious studies, biology to name just a few. The exercises needn’t be lengthy – This is about regular positive reinforcement. Remember as well that it could be anyone who works at the school who spots early warning signs of mental illness, whether it’s the school nurse or someone who works in the canteen. It’s worth taking the time to have full staff INSET training on mental health if you can so you’re all on the same page.
Natasha Devon MBE is the DfE’s first Mental Health Champion
‘Fundamentals- A Guide for Parents & Teachers on Mental Health & Self-Esteem’ – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fundamentals-Parents-Teachers-Carers-Self-Esteem/dp/1784181188
‘The Self-Esteem Team’s Guide to Sex, Drugs & WTFs?!!’ – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Self-Esteem-Teams-Guide-Drugs-WTFs/dp/1784186422