I had the privilege of holding a group talk with around thirteen year 10 students at Blessed Trinity Unity College recently to talk to them about mental health and get an understanding from them about the challenges they face and if they could, how they would change things?
I was nervous but excited. I always get a natural spark in me when speaking to children, I believe they spark the child in me and these young souls are our next generation, our responsibility and are a fountain of talent and energy that is accessible if we learn more about their world and give them a voice.
As I walked to the classroom it was pointed out to me by the teacher leading me down ‘they have already decided they don’t want to talk about mental health’ – good start! Immediately my mind went to ‘why wouldn’t they? I understand that’ I was curious and I knew in my heart my intent was to connect with them at an honest level and to understand more of their world and to get their input on how we could make this world a better place so the nerves turned to positive energy.
I started by helping them understand some of my journey, the path from football to business, success to failure and back to success and the places my own depression and struggles had taken me to. The lonely places where I felt the world would be better without me in it. I felt an authentic connection as the initial barriers came down. I explained that unfortunately out of a school of 1300 children the reality is a certain percentage would find themselves homeless, some will suffer from addiction and some would take their own life. I explained nobody is exempt from these potential pathways. Its reported that 50% of adult mental health is created before the age of 16. My study has taken me to Advanced Training in Psychotherapy and I believe this percentage would be way higher.
We spoke more of the understanding of mental health, the connection to mind, body, and spirit and that it’s not all centralised in our minds. I asked who had broken a bone and a few put their hands up, I then asked was it just their arm that hurt to which the answered ‘no’ they also felt rubbish as well and their mood was low. They believed this was because it ‘debilitated’ them physically. We looked for the similarities our minds and emotions had over our bodies and how low moods and anxiety affected our ability to learn. I believe they gained a deeper understanding of what mental health is and the connections throughout our bodies.
But I wasn’t here to tell them my story I was here to hear theirs. Putting them on the spot I asked them to tell me what their best and worst subject was as I went around the class, a few red faces appeared… ‘erm Maths best Science worst, mines English best History worst’ and so on. I wasn’t really interested in the subject I wanted to understand their feelings, and when I asked them, they said ‘I felt awkward’ I followed with ‘tell me more about what awkward feels like’ – ‘uncomfortable, like anxious and nervous!’ ‘Ah, what is that? Why do we get that feeling?’ I asked. One brave soul put his hand up ‘it’s a fear of being judged sir’ how wonderful. ‘That feeling of anxiety for the feeling of being judged is a real one, and that’s just saying what your best and worst subject is, so how difficult must it be to open up and say you are struggling with your emotions?’ We struck a chord. We talked more about the human brain development and the hormonal influence of cortisol that rushes through us as a response to this threat.
I wanted to learn more, I asked what else was holding them back from speaking about emotional and mental health and the outstanding response was ‘TRUST’. Or lack of it. They felt as though if they opened up then it wouldn’t be kept secret, and this was the main reason issues are kept within. I understand the professional dilemma teachers find themselves in as safeguarding for children is of paramount importance and now we had connected and found the root of the problem- Fear of judgement and lack of trust – I wanted them to tell me the solutions.
I pointed out that at the age of 15, their brains were the most highly tuned mechanisms on this planet and the people deciding on issues such as the environment and my social care when I’m 80 won’t be me but them. ‘Ok, you’re now the headteacher – In fact, you are the prime minister, you are in charge, you can write your week at school- how does it look, what would you change?’
In 15 minutes these bright, innovative and brave children that 30 minutes ago didn’t want to talk about mental health came up with this:
- Peer support group – we should be supporting each other and talking more, also speaking to the new kids coming into school to help them.
- More awareness and education – if we learned more and it was more accepted we’d talk more.
- We have a lesson once a week in reading that nobody engages with, everyone messes about but if we did this instead once a week for one hour that would stick with us.
- Maybe an app to rate yourself emotionally and so we can communicate.
- Someone like you coming in from the outside that we can understand, someone that gets us. Someone to trust.
We talked further about each class having a ‘wellbeing champion’ someone in class educated and trained and the class all writing a ‘Wellbeing Charter’ a commitment for them all to live by to the best of their ability.
I thanked them for their time. I felt inspired and full. As with the whole of human nature when we break down the barriers of judgement we release human spirit and tap into the imaginative parts of our brain which these 15-year-old have in abundance.
I spoke further with Mrs Mercer, a great teacher going way beyond her commitment to just teach, but sees that organisational change is needed and wants to be part of the process that makes things better. ‘We have issues of funding, we try new things then they just fall by the wayside’ I understood her frustration. There is one counsellor in the school for 1300 children. Can you imagine having one cleaner or one PE teacher?! There’s no wonder these teachers that got into teaching to work with children and feel good about seeing them grow, but now find themselves trying to manage their mental health end up off work stressed and sick themselves.
The issues then aren’t funding. The issues are that mental and emotional health isn’t understood and therefore isn’t seen as important as Maths, English and PE, so no money goes to it. Even the recent suicides in the school don’t seem to impact the ‘head down just keep going’ mentality that I know all so well from my past troubles.
We agreed to a big change, the whole organisation needs to change which will be no simple thing to do. However, we looked at the here and now and what we were in control of and what we could change. One of the biggest challenges will be helping teachers understand more about this and then seeing the benefits that good healthy emotional wellbeing has for a classroom.
Year 10s and year 11s could have trained student wellbeing champions in each form and each class could draw up a Wellbeing Charter. Peer support groups can be set up.
Trust is the deepest quantity of our human relationships. Without it we can’t grow to our potential we must work together to rebuild this
The main lesson I took from this is that children need a voice. They need to be understood, validated and need to know that they can have a positive impact on other people’s lives. If we keep this in mind and wrap solutions around these basic needs, we will rebuild trust and enable them to do what they were born to do. GROW.