We Need To Talk About Mental Health
The figures from last year’s Childline report ‘Not Alone Any More’ give an indication of what we, as teachers have realized for quite a while, anxiety and mental health concerns are on the rise among children and young people. In fact, they report a 17% increase in counselling sessions about anxiety in the year 2016 to 2017 and one in three class were about mental health and emotional wellbeing .
Life is becoming more and more complex and with the world right there in the palm of your hand in the form of smartphones and tablets, social media hammers on the door even when we don’t want to see it. Exam anxiety has always existed but young people are aware that the career markets are increasingly competitive and universities have high expectations along with the debt that students accrue (no more spending three years drinking and ‘finding yourself’). It’s no wonder that life begins to look pretty intimidating. Working with Year Ten earlier this year I asked the class to list the things they were anxious about. While family life bullying and careers came up the overwhelming answer from the whole class was exams.
What Can We Do?
So how do we address these concerns during PSHE and how are we preparing young people to manage their emotional health and wellbeing and to support each other? While teachers can’t be expected to deal with all aspects of mental health and wellbeing we need to signpost students to the experts for serious concerns by talking more about mental and health in the classroom, we can help young people to recognize their own feelings and the needs and those of others; recognize when they might need help and develop skills to manage their own mental health.
First and foremost the PSHE programme must be well-planned to address the needs of the pupils in your school and include sessions where they can learn, practice new skills and reflect on and discuss the topics. All too often PSHE sessions are too knowledge-based which means the end up rather more of a lecture than a well-planned learning opportunity. This doesn’t mean, however, that PSHE sessions are just about sitting around talking about your feelings. PSHE needs to be planned and delivered with the same challenge and aspiration as other subject areas with a good balance of knowledge, skills, and understanding.
All good PSHE sessions start with ground rules and this is particularly important when talking about mental health. The PSHE Association has some guidance about creating ground rules together. These should include agreed rules on listening, confidentiality and safeguarding. All good PSHE sessions should also include signposting students to further support after the session (such as help in school, the local area and nationally).
It helps to ‘distance’ discussions away from the personal by creating scenarios that students can explore together or using a stimulus such as a film-clip, picture or meme. Encourage students to think of ways they might deal with problems and explore all the ideas acknowledging that there may be several ways of addressing a concern and every person may handle things differently. Encourage deeper thinking by questioning: how could you help a friend who was in this situation? When might you need to get adult support? How would you know a friend needed help? Do we listen to our friend’s problem or we try to jump in and offer solutions immediately? What are the pros and cons of offering solutions? What makes a good listener? Remind students that everyone feels down and miserable sometimes and it’s fine to have moods, feel grumpy or disappointed! It’s when those down times turn into something deeper and longer that we may need to get further help and of course, if thoughts turn to self-harm or suicide then you need immediate help.
By keeping the channels of communication open between students and adults, be there to listen and talk and not rushing to ‘solve’ problems we can create an ethos where young people are better able to talk about their mental health needs.
Here are my five must-dos if you want to support students to be more open about mental health in your school:
- Have a look at the PSHE Association’s guidance on mental health. It’s clear, concise and really helpful.
- Look at your school’s PSHE programme to see if you’re addressing mental health and emotional wellbeing in lessons. How do the lessons create a spiral curriculum that grows throughout a student’s school career?
- Make sure all students know who they can talk to in school and encourage all students to make their own list of three trusted friends they can talk to and three trusted adults (at home or school) they can talk to.
- Ensure that concerns about mental health are taken seriously and that the appropriate level of support if given- does the young person need a chat and some support or do they need to be referred to a trained professional?
- Keep an eye out for free government training on mental health and for more information about mental health leads in all schools.