There is much focus on mental health in the media currently and especially in relation to adolescent health. In school it is absolutely essential that we are not only alert to the warning signs of difficulty, but also proactive in promoting positive mental health in the same way we advocate physical activity to keep our bodies fighting fit.
There has been little coverage of Dr Praveetha Patalay’s study of adolescent health, 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 born in 1991–92 around Bristol and the second from across the UK, born in 2000–01). The survey focused on 14-year-olds, firstly in 2005 and then of 14-year-olds in 2015.
According to the survey, teenagers now are less likely to try alcohol, to smoke, to commit acts of vandalism or to assault someone (despite increased 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 have each night.
Dr Patalay observes that some issues are improving and others are deteriorating but the hope is, that such surveys 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 best support young people in our school.
No one child or individual will necessarily respond in the same way to support or intervention as another. Therefore, it is vital in school that we adopt a range of strategies to build emotional intelligence and resilience to support healthy habits and a positive Mindset. This includes developing an approach where mistakes and disappointment are challenges that young people can learn from, and move forward. We actually need a whole toolkit of strategies to help support our students effectively. They do not need to be new or innovative but they need to be integrated effectively in to all aspects of school life and our approach to it. With a consistent approach, 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. Hopefully parents too can reflect upon best practice to ensure a holistic and balanced approach from both home and school. Children always respond best when the messages and guidance received are consistent and clear – this works just as effectively for preventative action as well as intervention.
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
Increasingly, so much of what we do at Westholme focuses on these themes, even though they are not, in themselves, specifically signposting mental health; such as in our Growth Mindset approach. I believe that feeling valued is at the heart of the best mental health provision. Our staff listen and care; this ensures that our students feel valued because they matter. We try to foster a culture of openness with the opportunity to talk and this is so important as examination stress builds at this time of year.
Our Westholme toolkit includes: assemblies and talks about perseverance and self-esteem, sleep patterns and nutrition; it includes high quality pastoral care and regular communication with home. It is also important as staff that we model and exhibit the attributes we want our young people to develop. Sometimes after a very busy day, it is difficult to ensure that those messages are consistently relayed but we work hard at it – this is evident in the daily interactions between staff and students in lessons, in activities and in our communal spaces such as the LRC or Dining Room. I hear some wonderful discussions between students and staff just outside my office! Unseen, I hear debates about homework deadlines; requests for help with a topic; apologies from students for disappointing behaviour in class; thanks for a job well done; TLC after a difficult day and often laughter over a shared joke. It reassures me and goes a long way to remind me that what we do to care for the mental wellbeing of our young people at Westholme goes way beyond policies and procedures. Rather it goes to the heart of the mutual respect and care shared between staff and students and our ethos – Mens Sana In Corpore Sano.