Mental health practitioners need the support of teachers if they are to succeed in schools, says Tara Guha.
Another day, another story about children’s mental health. Self-harm statistics at an all-time high, anxiety the fastest growing illness in under-21s, cyberbullying getting out of hand and children’s mental health services themselves in a state of emergency.
I wish I could say these were just stories, but working for a Healthy Minds, a Halifax-based mental health charity, means I don’t just see the headlines but the children behind them. Lots of them, too, sitting in groups of 25 to 30, waiting for me to impress them with an anti-stigma workshop (fancy that as a gig?). The aim of the game is for children to understand that we all have mental health, that it shifts around on a continuum, and that it’s OK to talk about it.
The service we provide is free to the school; we print our own materials and co-produce the session with a Healthy Minds volunteer who has his or her own experience of mental distress and will talk about that in the session. We give out information on where to find help and support. And we get great feedback from children, who report increased understanding of mental health and how to look after their own emotional wellbeing.
Our goal is prevention; to give kids the understanding, vocabulary and tools to take charge of their own mental health before it deteriorates and they are left knocking at a closed door to children’s mental health services. But we need backup from the school to achieve this. Children talk about the things that stress them out most, and school/exams usually top the charts.
“Fourteen-year-olds tell me they spend upwards of seven hours a day on a screen, not including school work, as opposed to the recommended one and a half hours, often in the night when their parents don’t realise.”
Of course that’s partly because other things might be harder to share in front of the class, but there’s no doubt there’s an irony: I’m being brought in by schools to deal with the consequences of their own exam-centred culture. And yes, the buck for that doesn’t stop with schools, but what a joy it would be if our anti-stigma approach was embedded within the ethos of the school instead of sometimes feeling like a box-ticking exercise.
Stressed pupils? Bring in someone to talk about mental health. And at the same time send home letters about what constitutes a valid reason for absence, placing anxiety in the same non-valid category as coughs, colds and head lice. Yes, head lice. On a polite day, I’d say that’s not helpful.
We need teachers joining in our sessions, backing us up, demonstrating to the class that this stuff is important. Not marking books or furtively texting. Yes, teachers are stretched and stressed too and could probably do with a session or two themselves. Book me in!
But it’s not just about schools, and at this point parents might be tempted to block their ears and shout, “la la la”. Recreational screen time is starting to play havoc with our young people’s mental health. Fourteen-year-olds tell me they spend upwards of seven hours a day on a screen (not including school work), as opposed to the recommended one and a half hours, often in the night when their parents don’t realise.
We know about the effects of blue light before bedtime, and we know there’s a strong link between lack of sleep and depression. We know that the more girls use social media, the more their mood drops. We know that recreational screen time releases dopamine, the chemical associated with addiction. And we know that kids are using their devices more and more and more.
When I talk to primary school children about screen time, they are delightfully open and self-aware about its negative effects, how too much makes them feel weird and grumpy and not sure what to do with themselves afterwards. They’ll discuss how they could try to cut down, and what they could do instead.
By year 10, the door has pretty much closed on that discussion, in the form of rows of blank, if not actively hostile faces. It doesn’t stop me trying.
So as parents, I’d say we have a window to try to negotiate some boundaries around recreational screen time before it jeopardises our kids’ happiness and wellbeing. It might mean having regulate our own phone-checking and doing all that good modelling stuff while our children are still young enough to be influenced by us.
Schools could back that message up too; at one primary school I went into, the enthusiasm for setting goals around reducing screen time was so infectious that I practically begged the school to do a project with the children after my sessions had finished. To my knowledge that hasn’t happened. And we’re back to that stumbling block of integrating mental health awareness into daily life at school and home, instead of it being an occasional add-on when a problem is flagged up.
To that end, my work with schools is starting to encompass workshops for parents too, which looks to be a popular and positive initiative. If all of us who care about young people can work together to give consistent messages, encourage children to be aware of their emotional health and how to look after it, then maybe, just maybe, we have a chance to try to stem the flow of headlines. Probably not head lice though. You can’t change everything.
Healthy Minds is Calderdale’s only independent mental health charity. For information about anti-stigma sessions in schools or community organisations, contact Tara Guha on 01422 345154, [email protected].
Tara Guha’s debut novel Untouchable Things is out now.
Tara Guha works for mental health charity Healthy Minds. She's also a writer, amateur musician and armchair cricket pundit.