I have been very privileged this week to be part of the GSA Heads’ Conference in Manchester. Once again, we were introduced to experts in their fields sharing their research to help us to understand current issues that are prevalent in schools. Unsurprisingly top of the agenda was mental health and the important role schools play in instilling mental wellness.
The statistics of mental health are becoming increasingly well known. The onset of poor mental health begins at 14, with 1 in 4 pupils developing poor mental health. Mental health is not talked about openly nor are ways of promoting good mental health widely discussed. Whilst pupils recognise what they need to do to ensure good physical health (they understand the importance of exercise, a balanced diet and sufficient sleep) not enough emphasis is put on helping them recognise what good mental health means and how to achieve it.
Natasha Devon, one of our keynote speakers at conference, who has worked on Government led education and health committees, spoke about the three mental health skills that need to be taught: critical thinking, emotional vocabulary and healthy coping mechanisms.
Pupils needed to be more critical of the subliminal messaging they were getting from advertising, to look for the stereotypes, to look out for the airbrushing and the unrealistic, narrow focus on the beauty ideal. They needed to be taught these critical thinking skills, shown adverts where they can spot the distortion and be confident to challenge the stereotype. Once youngsters recognise they are being manipulated they feel liberated from the need to conform to unrealistic ideals.
Adults tend to want to “fix” mental health but need to understand that most of the time teenagers just want to be listened to, to be able to express how they feel and in doing so develop their emotional vocabulary. They need people to stand by them, not to judge them but make them feel it is OK to be expressing their emotions. They do not want adults “to freak out” but rather tell me more, what does it feel like for you
Young people also need to be given healthy coping mechanisms, which help them release the stress and anxiety. Physical exercise is the best coping mechanism – it releases endorphins, it allows them a moment for mindfulness, where they can forget their troubles and they do not have to be perfect at it, freeing them from the anxiety of having to perform.
I hope through curriculum, PSHE and pastoral care programmes we are enabling our girls to do just this, giving them the room to express their emotions in a supportive environment, allowing them to question ideals and encouraging them to find coping mechanisms.
It seems that the happiest people in the world come from a hunter and collector tribe in Nambia – their lifestyle is one of daily exercise, a community working together who are connected, a tribe that has a collective sense of purpose and in the evening come together and dance and sing.
It was a powerful speech, and made me reflect. We need not to just achieve this happiest for the girls, but for ourselves. We need to led by example and carve out time in our day for exercise, to connect with friends and family, to listen and share moments of celebration together.