As we mark another Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re thrilled to be getting back into a more settled routine when it comes to school and education.
However, after over a year of disruption, we need to be aware that children and young people, as resilient as they are, may need our support now more than ever.
I mention the resilience of younger generations because they’ve had a tough time from critics in the past. We’ve all heard the ridiculous ‘snowflake’ narrative directed at young people, and, in my experience, nothing could be further from the truth, particularly during the last 14 months.
Children are curious and positively engaged in the conversation around mental health, and that actually puts them in a much better position to respond to challenges.
If anything, it makes them stronger, better equipped. But even so, when we consider the disruptions we’ve all been through, we have to remember that social contact with friends and fellow pupils is such a significant part of a child’s life in terms of wellbeing, learning and development, so the loss of contact is undoubtedly going to affect them greatly.
Many pupils of all ages have found this latest lockdown more difficult than the previous one. There’s probably something in the cumulative effect of disruption, with each day going by adding to feelings of loss, anxiety and isolation.
They’ve experienced disruption to their routines, their face to face interactions with friends and teachers, and their normal activities that they can no longer participate in. All these things combine to create stress, anxiety and unhappiness.
In spite of this wholesale lifestyle change we’ve all been through, our pupils have clearly coped really well with the different stages of lockdown, demonstrating their resilience and adaptability admirably.
However, their return to school isn’t a return to normal, and we need to manage expectations, further adjustments to the way we need to do things and the build-up of anxiety that is no doubt currently still lingering inside all of us.
Children express their anxiety in different ways and at Newcastle High School for Girls, we support them as well as we possibly can by providing a range of services – a holistic approach if you like.
We have a school nurse and a school counsellor available for children of all ages, and we also cover mental wellbeing topics such as self-esteem and resilience in PSHE classes.
We’re also part of the Girls’ Day School Trust, GDST, and through them, we have access to the GDST Positive Project, working with the Positive Group on lessons and activities designed to help the girls understand and in turn regulate their emotions and anxieties.
Interestingly, we find that the passion and inspiration around the School’s work on mental health and wellbeing often comes from the girls themselves so, whilst we do work with external organisations and professional services, having our Year 13 Head Girl Team leading an assembly and sharing their experiences of mental health are perhaps some of the most powerful ways we have found to engage younger pupils on this vital topic.
So as important as these support structures are, I think that the single most important thing we can do to help our children and young people at school is to encourage a truly authentic, open and supportive culture where nobody is judged – where it’s OK not to be OK.
Probably the most concerning situation for me isn’t where we see an influx of pupils informing us of their worries and challenges, it’s where we don’t hear about such problems.
If young people keep their struggles to themselves, that’s when there is the potential for problems to fester and get worse.
How can we respond if we don’t know what we’re responding to?
I’m concerned about the longer-term impact on young people, and that is obviously an unknown right now. We’ve never been through anything like this before.
The media talks about learning loss and the learning gap that has manifested itself due to the pandemic, but there’s also a mental health gap and you really can’t over-estimate the impact of that.
So how can schools and parents work together to address this? I think the answer is two-fold and includes both a proactive and a reactive response.
If parents can actively start conversations with their children about how they are feeling, how they are managing with these changes and adaptations, if they can promote an honest and open culture of mental health conversation in the home, it will complement what we are trying to do in schools.
Additionally, it’s important for parents to know that they are not on their own when it comes to their child’s mental wellbeing.
All schools will have some level of support in place and it’s important to find out what support is available, who to speak to with any concerns and how to tap into and engage effectively with school wellbeing programmes.
Secondly, we need to react quickly to any challenges as they arise – and before we reach crisis point. As a school, we’d much rather hear from parents who have concerns that something might not be right, even if there’s a chance that they could be worrying about nothing.
If we can intervene quickly we can work together to nip any problems in the bud and stop them progressing into something bigger or more serious.
But I think it’s important to note that every child is different, every child expresses themselves in their own way and every child will have experienced the lockdown differently based on their circumstances, personality and pre-existing wellbeing challenges.
So while we are of course delighted to be looking forward to more consistency than we’ve had for some time, we’re also going to be working hard to keep our eyes open to any apparent struggles and concerns, and we’re certainly not going to expect all to adapt perfectly to the new normal.
We are all, after all, human, and the best thing we can do is move forward with empathy, understanding and an honest and open dialogue.
For more information regarding NHSG, visit newcastlehigh.gdst.net. Whether you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one, these mental health charities, organisations and support groups can offer expert advice: nhs.uk