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Mental health problems develop early (one in eight children aged five to 16 have a diagnosable condition), which is why schools need to embed a whole school approach to wellbeing. This was the main message behind Optimus Education’s Supporting Student Wellbeing in Independent Schools conference in London, held on 30 April. An embedded wellbeing approach provides positive and proactive support to both pupils and staff.
The word proactive is key. Brightcore Consultancy’s Oliver Welsby, a safeguarding, mental health and wellbeing consultant, said at the conference: “Most mental health problems start in childhood and adolescence, and most mental health problems are preventable. This is where education comes in.
“We need a preventive curriculum in regards to mental health. Primary prevention should be educating the whole population about mental health and about strategies to cope with adversity. We need secondary prevention targeting the most at-risk groups.”
He continued: “Resilience is gone; it’s culturally disappeared, and it seems to be the schools’ job to teach it. Teaching young people how to deal with adversity and how to deal with constant change is absolutely crucial.”
He discussed several areas to look at and tips when thinking about a mental health and wellbeing curriculum. Be consistent with it, consult your students, use peer learning (for example, having older students to talk to younger students about social media), ensure there is a high level of focus on the skills necessary to deal with adversity, ensure staff training is at a high standard and ensure there is routine feedback in terms of the outcome and measuring what you’re doing.
Teaching young people how to deal with adversity and how to deal with constant change is absolutely crucial
Helen Keevil, assistant headteacher at Epsom College, discussed the school’s Personal and Social Development (PSD) programme that encompasses spiritual, moral, social and cultural activities across all year groups. This includes school counselling, peer mentoring, digital safety and wellbeing, guest speakers (she recommended Alicia Drummond as someone who just “gets the private school”), outreach to the local community, parental involvement and supporting national campaigns.
Her top tips for boarding schools? Develop a peer mentor programme; develop links with charities, current parents, feeder schools, their staff and local state schools; invite former pupils back to share stories; host a PSD conference to celebrate proactive pastoral care style and even consider investing in a wellbeing dog.
Dr Helen O’Connor, psychologist at St Swithun’s School and Graham Yates, deputy head pastoral, spoke about anxiety and strategies to overcome it at the event. Anxiety is the most common disorder and girls are affected by it more than boys. They said the key message to get across to anyone with anxiety is that it will pass.
St Swithun’s School heard about Geelong Grammar School’s Positive Education model four years ago and started small with a programme based on their model. O’Connor, Yates and the head of year 7 deliver lessons in Positive Education for years 7 and 8. “We are excited about some of the effects it has,” said O’Connor.
I noticed that even the conference had been designed with good wellbeing in mind. From using Slido, where attendees can send questions online to the speakers to be answered live without having to say them out loud in front of everyone, to allowing attendees to have a choice of sessions they attended, so they know their preferences are valued. The talks also allowed attendees to speak freely and ask questions about their own specific circumstances, as online advice can help but only go so far. My main takeaway? Be proactive instead of reactive.
Mentally Healthy Schools: www.mentallyhealthyschools.org.uk
Family Links: www.familylinks.org.uk
Black Dog Institute: www.blackdoginstitute.org.au
Anna Freud: www.annafreud.org
Votes for Schools: www.votesforschools.com
MHFA (Jane Cattermole and Dick Moore recommended for independent schools): https://mhfaengland.org