A mental health toolkit

Helen Jeys, headmistress at Alderley Edge School for Girls, says feeling heard and valued can go a long way to ensure students’ wellbeing

There has not been very much made of Dr Praveetha Patalay’s study, recently recorded in the International Journal of Epidemiology, about the results of analysis completed on two large cohorts of 14-year-olds – the first group from around Bristol, born in 1991–92, and the second from across the UK, born in 2000–01.

The research did not focus on mental health in isolation but, more generally, on adolescent health. The survey focused on 14-year-olds, firstly in 2005 and then of 14-year-olds in 2015.   There are significant and interesting differences in the results recorded between both groups. 

According to the survey, teenagers now are less likely to try alcohol, to smoke, to commit acts of vandalism or to assault someone (despite increasing concern about knife crime across the UK). However, what is significant is the increase in self-harm, depressive symptoms and a decrease in the amount of sleep young people are managing on a nightly basis.

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Dr Patalay comments, obviously, that some issues are improving and others are getting worse but the hope is that such surveys may provide us with a more holistic picture of the potential risk factors for mental health problems so that we can do what we can to support those in our care.

What is also obvious to those of us in education is that one size does not fit all and that, however hard we try to adopt a specific approach to supporting those with difficulty, what we actually need is a whole toolkit of strategies to help support young people. Do these have to be ‘new’ and ‘innovative’? I am not sure that they do. Indeed, I have written extensively in articles across the years about the variety of ways in which we can improve resilience and perseverance among young people and, of course, all strategies can be very important in a whole school approach to improving mental health. 

The website www.mentalhealth.org provides the following list as important to keeping children and young people mentally well. 

It states that children should, wherever possible:

● Feel loved, trusted, understood, valued and safe

● Be interested in life and have opportunities to enjoy themselves

● Be hopeful and optimistic

● Be able to learn and have opportunities to succeed

● Accept who they are and recognise what they are good at

● Have a sense of belonging in their family, school and community

● Feel they have some control over their own life

● Have the strength to cope when something is wrong (resilience) and the ability to solve problems.

Feeling valued

Increasingly, so much of what we do at my school focuses on these themes, even though they are not, in themselves, focused specifically on mental health. Feeling valued, though, is what I do feel is at the heart of outstanding mental health provision. I know that my students have the support of staff who will, quite literally, drop everything to listen. This in itself ensures that our girls feel valued because, precisely, they are being listened to.

Indeed, I think it is becoming increasingly important to address whether the students in our school have the capacity to be heard. Does your school really foster a culture of openness and the opportunity to talk? There are several girls in my school who come and chat to me – particularly in Year 11 when they are facing the stresses of exams – and say that they just feel better afterwards because they feel that they have been listened to and heard. During these conversations, yes, we talk about sleep hygiene and extra-curricular participation, work routines, exercise and nutrition (all those obvious features that can contribute to wellbeing), but they also are being heard and listened to. This makes a difference. 

I also hear about the small strategies and the work that is going on during form times, day in and day out, which help our girls to feel valued.

What we actually need is a whole toolkit of strategies to help support young people. Do these have to be ‘new’ and ‘innovative’? I am not sure that they do

One Year 11 girl, for instance, talked about how much she enjoyed the opportunities that were being given to take part in weekly yoga and mindfulness sessions and that these really helped her to face the stress of exams. She also talked about how her Year 11 form tutor had asked each member of her form to write something they valued in one other member of the group with whom they had been partnered. The form tutor did not distribute these to the partners immediately but did so several weeks later when the girls were facing some internally set assessments and she could detect that the girls needed, perhaps, a helping hand to have their mood lifted. This small gesture had a huge impact on helping these girls to feel valued, appreciated and to feel part of that community that I think contributes so much to a feeling of mental wellbeing.

So, we need a toolkit; assemblies and talks about perseverance and self-esteem, sleep patterns and nutrition. However, we also need the basics too; the ability for our students to feel heard and for them to feel valued. As leaders, we need to ask ourselves whether our schools are centres of wellbeing. How do we encourage our students to talk to us? Do they have the genuine ability to do so? Do we encourage a culture of openness or is this greeted with suspicion?

What, for instance, did your school do on Time to Talk Day and do you encourage your students to follow the ‘if your mate’s acting differently, ask twice’ approach, advocated by the Time to Change website. We have to take the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ approach. It is the business of all of us – parents and schools – to continue to do what we can to listen to all of the students in our care and, hopefully, improve those statistics once more. 

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