Previously I wrote about the dire situation which has put both pupil and teacher mental health at risk. I concluded that nothing but a fundamental, systemic change could truly fix it. There are, however, a few relatively small changes schools and colleges can make which I have found can make a dramatic, positive difference.
Reclaim sports & creativity
Since 2010, subjects like sports, art, music and drama have been defunded, devalued and therefore squeezed out of the curriculum.
Some schools I visit have taken small but powerful steps to reclaim these activities, using a ‘little and often’ approach.
One school which was enduring an epidemic of severe exam stress finished each lesson with five minutes of juggling. This was a way to ‘wind down’ at the end of each session of study, taught pupils that there is value in practising a skill for its own sake, but was also designed to promote resilience. In the words of the head teacher ‘when you drop a ball, you pick it back up again’.
Practice ‘shoulder to shoulder’ communication
Some people find face-to-face communication and eye contact too intense if they want to discuss an emotional difficulty. If there is someone who you suspect is struggling with their mental health, but finds it difficult to open up, try asking them to help you with carrying some textbooks from one side of the site to the other, or cleaning out a cupboard. You might find that they begin to confide in you as the pressure of eye contact is removed.
The human brain likes to create narratives and convince itself that there is meaning behind sequences of events. That’s why children and adults alike have a tendency to ‘collect’ worries and collate them into one giant, insurmountable super-dilemma. It’s little wonder that anxiety is one of the fastest growing illnesses in the world.
If a young person comes to me and says they feel overwhelmed, the first thing I ask them to do is to articulate every single concern that’s currently in their head, no matter how silly it might seem. We then divide their worries into three categories and create three distinct lists on three different coloured pieces of paper:
‘Things only I can change’ (‘I haven’t done enough revision for my exam’)
‘Things I need someone else’s help to change’ (‘I don’t understand this class/module’)
‘Things I can’t control’ (‘If I don’t get a high enough grade I won’t get into this uni’)
Rip up the third list and chuck it away – it’s a symbolic gesture for letting those worries go. Research shows that stressing about the future actually impedes your performance in the current moment. You’re then left with a clear ‘to do’ list which can be tackled chunk-by-chunk.
Get parents on board
In some of the schools I visit, parents of whole year groups have imposed a ‘cut off’ time for mobile phone/internet use of, say, 8pm. This stops any pupil feeling singled-out or having the dreaded ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out). It also encourages a unified approach between schools and parents.
Whilst internet access and phone use is unavoidable in young people, it’s important to create healthy boundaries which in turn curb the addictive nature of social media and promotes sleep, which is crucial in maintaining good mental health and effective learning.
Don’t undervalue your role
Dopamine in the right concentration produces health in the brain. We now understand that 93% of dopamine secretion happens in our limbic system, which is the brain’s emotional control centre. If you show genuine interest in a person, listen to their concerns and let them know they aren’t judged, you make that person feel valued and loved. In doing so you are literally controlling their dopamine secretion.
So often, I hear school staff say ‘we’re talking about mental health all the time but there are no services/solutions’. This is of course a valid fear. Talking can’t replace therapeutic services, but neither is it entirely futile.
Just by taking the time to talk to a colleague or pupil you have improved their brain chemistry and given them the gift of clearer thinking. If you combine it with the ‘three lists’ activity above, you have improved the clarity of their thinking and given them a clear pathway for how they might like to move forward.
Be rigorous when buying in outside PSHE resources
If you have the budget, outside speakers or resources can be a great way to address the topic of mental health in PHSE. However, there are a gazillion different organisations trying to claim a chunk of this busy market and, if handled wrong, mental health awareness lessons can do more harm than good.
I have listed organisations who I have seen doing great work in schools on the ‘Education Resources’ page of my website, as well as charities who can provide unbiased, evidence-based information on the ‘Advice and Support’ page.
If in doubt, defer to your teacher network. Find out if any of your fellow teachers have seen the speaker, or organisation, in action and ask for an honest review.
Mental Health First Aid England recommend taking an entire hour each day for self-care This can be as simple as going for a walk, getting fresh air, reading a non-work related book, taking a bath, spending time with a pet or cooking. It is crucial, however, to practice self-care every single day to drain away the inevitable stress you have encountered.
Teachers often tell me an hour each day sounds impossible but, in many cases, it stops people reaching crisis point. Be strict with yourself about carving out and ringfencing this time and take a unified approach with your leadership team if you believe it’s being jeopardised.
After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup.
"A Beginner's Guide to Being Mental: An A-Z from Anxiety to Zero F**ks Given" is published by Bluebird Books