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Don't run away from mental health issues - just run!

John Aguilar, Principal at Padworth College, discusses how a running club offers the school an alternative type of therapy

Posted by Lucinda Reid | April 02, 2017 | Health & wellbeing

Mental health-related issues in young people have been an area of concern over the last few years; in fact the issue appears to be escalating at quite an alarming rate. Over the last five years, 90% of headteachers have reported an increase in mental health problems among pupils and, over the same period, hospital admissions for self-harm have doubled for under 18s.

Above all, we need to advocate the message that it is ‘okay not to be okay’ and that we are here to help - John Aguilar, Principal at Padworth College

Here at Padworth, most of our students are under 18 and in our care for a substantial portion of the week, if not all of it. Therefore, we are very focused on removing the stigma associated with mental health and also putting preventative care in place. I firmly believe that, for those students who require it, we need to be offering a means of assessment, counselling and consultation which co-exists with the promotion of universal wellbeing. In short, we need to be very un-British and make sure that we provide plenty of opportunities to talk about it. Instead of offering discreet, wooden guidance, we need to be open and vocal about the issue. Above all, we need to advocate the message that it is ‘okay not to be okay’ and that we are here to help.

As Padworth College is predominantly a boarding school which homes a vast range of nationalities, we understand how initially, it can be a difficult transition for our students. Often, they have travelled from a place very far from the Berkshire countryside, with little access to familiarity and are surrounded by strangers who are not necessarily proficient in their language. So, we put certain measures in place to ensure that the transition is a smooth and not a daunting one which, instead of fear, cultivates a sense of bonding amongst our students. It is really important that we set up a safe and reassuring environment for everyone who attends Padworth – whether they board or attend during the day.

Additionally, we have found common ground for our students through the co-curricular activities that we offer such as our running club which is led by Chris Randell, Deputy Principal. He is an avid runner who uses his sessions to reflect and refocus, as it is a routine that gives balance and release to both his and the students’ stresses. Therefore preventing some of those difficult days. To start with, Chris welcomed students to join him on one of his weekly runs, which soon grew and turned into a running club.

The weekly run creates team spirit, enjoyment and togetherness, as well as an opportunity to expel stress and boost endorphins. Chris takes the students out in all weather conditions to uphold the principle of finding balance within a busy week and also to teach perseverance, resilience and self-discipline. These attributes are necessary for tackling issues and overcoming them –whether it be switching off from an approaching exam or dealing with a more personal issue. Being so committed and determined to achieve his personal goals, Chris completed an impressive total of 2,801km in 2016. When I asked him about his achievement, Chris said: “Reaching my target at the end of November was an amazing feeling and I hope that this can serve to inspire our students to reach their goals.” 

At Padworth we have different approaches to communication, and the way our teachers interact with students makes for a more collaborative and friendly environment. For example, students address staff on a first name basis and are not required to wear school uniform, in an effort to create a sense of ease in their surroundings. We also encourage language workshops as a way to break the ice between unfamiliar languages, which builds relationships amongst the students. As a boarding school, we organise an interesting range of educational and social pursuits which offer students different outlets and support their personal development.

We also have a fully trained therapy dog on campus who visits primary schools and hospitals, helping individuals to benefit from her calming influence and friendly nature. These methods work for us and our students, but I am very aware that the problem is growing and every school should be fine tuning its own methods to maintain a beneficial mental health environment for its students.

I say, keep it simple, as it is a message that is sometimes forgotten. Often simple offerings like our running club can act as a successful form of alternative therapy, for stresses that do not necessarily need discussing. The physical therapy ensures a healthy level of physical and mental health and it also develops self-awareness in the students, so that they listen to their body and know when they need to slow down in all areas of life.

Teenagers in general have fluctuating hormones, which is why they need more support during this phase of their life. Different degrees of support are necessary, depending on the individual and the situation. Efforts need to be made to identify signs of concern early, using the different outlets available to maintain and encourage wellbeing.

Collectively as a profession we should be at the forefront on this issue as young people spend a great deal of time in our care and rely on us for the right guidance and support. This means thinking outside the box a bit more so that we can help young people to really enjoy their formative years

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