We’ve Got To Talk Through It by Phillip Evitt and Sophie Baber
Thankfully it has been impossible to ignore World Mental Health Day, which took place yesterday. Given the growing awareness of the challenges so many face from conditions little understood and for years masked by the British stiff upper lip, we are now so much more aware of what we need to be doing in our schools and in our lives to take care of our mental health. The statistics remain, by any standards, terrifying: 1 in 6 of us will experience a common mental health problem in any given week, such as anxiety or depression. Young Minds reported this week that school leaders have seen a 90% increase in stress and anxiety levels in their pupils in the last five years. A high profile video featuring Will, Kate, Harry and Megan and ITV launching Get Britain Talking during Britain’s Got Talent, demonstrate that, what has been a silent killer and source of pain to so many for so long, is at last being acknowledged and addressed.
At Highfield and Brookham, we constantly strive to bring this scourge to the top of the agenda. Mental health illnesses affect a staggering one in four adults and it is worth noting that research suggests the majority first develop their symptoms between the ages of 7 and 14, the core years of prep school education. Way back in April 2014, we held a conference titled 'Flourishing', hosted for other like-minded prep and senior schools. We aimed to shine a light on the scale of the problem and to consider simple ways of changing our practice and educating our staff and children to help counter the sense of loneliness and despair so many suffer from in silence. This led to a significant number of developments: every member of the teaching staff was trained in Mental Health First Aid; three teachers became Mental Health First Aid trainers; in turn they have trained hundreds of parents and teachers in our community. In addition Mindfulness has become a weekly feature of every child’s PSHE lessons and Peer Listeners, Calm Time and Listening Club are all part of the weekly offering for children. Furthermore, the training hasn’t stopped. All new staff will embark on the Mental Health First Aid training in the near future and we have a member of staff currently undergoing training to become an Emotional Literacy Support Assistant.
While this is all wonderful, we, as parents, are also vital in supporting our children. It goes without saying that we are desperate to protect them and to ensure that they are happy and safe. But, despite the best intentions, protecting our children is not the key to ensuring that they stay mentally healthy.
Any parent or self-respecting teacher of little children will be more than familiar with Michael Rosen’s ‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’. The title alone will conjure images of long, wavy grass, deep, cold rivers, of thick, oozy mud and, of course, the BEAR! But this adventure is more than a well-loved picture book. It has a very strong message for us as we prepare children for the challenges of adult life, ‘We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it.’ Our children cannot bypass experiences and become devoid of challenging circumstance. ‘We have to go through it.’ Experiencing emotions as a child gives us the tools to learn how to deal with them as a teenager or adult. Having said that, experience alone is not enough…
Talk is a vital component for ensuring that we stay mentally well. Talk is a significant tool used to combat the trickiest of times, but we must be proactive rather than reactive. When we ask our children how their day was, do we give them the same amount of our attention when we listen to the positive news as we do to the negative? Matilda’s walk with her father to the top of Mount Snowdon was a wonderful achievement for a very worthy cause, but more than this, it provided father and daughter time to talk, to create a bond to embed in Matilda the understanding that through communication there comes a sense of belonging and love.
Our children will encounter tough times. Our job is to ensure that they have strength and the strategies to overcome these challenges.