I attended the HMC Spring Conference this week where the title was ‘Good Mental Health in Schools – What Works?’ This in itself was a bold title and one which would not have been used several years ago. Indeed, when I first started teaching some twenty years ago the idea that mental health was in any way connected with schools would have been inconceivable. However, the evidence now being presented about the levels of mental illness in the school-age population places it right at the top of any school’s policy agenda and whether we call it well-being or pastoral support, there is a need to confront and address the issues both in school, at home and in the wider community that is clear and present.
The fact that we are now able to talk about the issues is, in itself, a huge step forward. I grew up in a home where one of my parents suffered from depression and it was a dislocating and at times frightening experience. What made it worse, however, was that I had nobody I could speak to and no words to articulate my feelings. I hope that things have changed significantly for our current young people and that they don’t have the same feelings of isolation I felt as a teenager. I hope so, but the tone of yesterday’s conference suggested that there is still much to be done. It was also clear that partnership working is the key to addressing the difficulties of maintaining good mental health. Schools shouldn’t work in isolation, nor do they have the resources or expertise to deal with the complexities of mental illness on their own. We have significant access to the young people who attend school and influence over the school culture, but need to work collaboratively with healthcare professionals, parents and extended family members to make sure there is a cohesive network of support.
Above all, we can influence the language around mental illness and by doing so break down the stereotypes that certainly prevailed when I was a child. One of the most compelling presentations at the Spring Conference was from Natasha Devon, who is a mental health champion and adviser to the Government. She set up a charity called the ‘Self-Esteem Team’ which promotes positive attitudes to mental health in schools and works at supporting resilience in young people. Natasha stated her belief that ‘values lead behaviour’, in other words what we believe ourselves influences the way we meet others. A valuable phrase to remember if we are truly committed to an open culture around mental health and a positive future for the young people in our care who may be affected either directly or indirectly.
IWK – April 2016