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Headmaster's Blog: Let’s keep talking about mental health

Headmaster's Blog: Let’s keep talking about mental health

A recent survey reporting a sharp rise in the number of young people referred by schools for mental health treatment saddened me but didn’t come as a huge surprise.

We’ve also experienced an increase in the number of pupils speaking to staff about feeling anxious. That in itself has not caused undue concern: recognising that anxiety is part of modern life is the first step towards dealing with it effectively, and our strong pastoral care structure is well equipped to meet the need.

What is behind this rise? One of the reasons put forward nationally is increasing awareness among teachers. In our school, I am pleased that the close pastoral relationship we foster with pupils means that they feel confident enough of teachers’ understanding and support to ask for help.

The fact we’ve experienced an increase just ahead of exam time is fairly understandable. Other causes are often situational, like a family illness or bereavement. Children in the Second Year, aged around 13-14, are prone to heightened anxiety, which often coincides with transition through adolescence, when hormonal changes are coupled with a preoccupation with self-identity.    

Let us not forget the contribution of social media: the ever-present pressure to look the part and appear to be having great fun in a “switched on,” 24/7 world.

Public Health England has reported that only a quarter of under-18s who need help actually get it. At our School, while we can never rest on our laurels, pupils can access specialist support through our wellbeing programme which is supported by two clinical psychologists who act as an advice point for teachers, as well as providing confidential advice and support to pupils. Pastoral staff are trained in how to spot signs of mental health problems in young people and assess their wellbeing, then determine whether external help is required. This is not a cause for alarm: I firmly believe that early intervention is the best way of preventing more serious problems.

Pastoral staff are also trained in how to reassure and calm an anxious child, how to listen non-judgmentally, and how to suggest self-help strategies. They help pupils find ways to ease their worries, to make them more resilient and get a sense of balance and proportion. That’s reflected in our varied curriculum, which promotes physical exercise, mentoring activities, music, art and drama.

Many studies have shown that a sense of wellbeing is improved by taking part in arts activities. At a time when arts subjects are being squeezed out of curriculums by a focus on traditional academic subjects, I’m delighted that our long-held belief in the value of creativity and innovation has resulted in our new £3m Art and Design Technology Centre, largely funded by the Pocklington School community.

Not only do the arts present an opportunity to change focus, but they give children and young people the chance to express themselves and explore their feelings and emotions. Children in our Prep School experience the same freedom through art, music, role play and academic play. Sports, too, represent time to switch off from academic or life pressure pupils may feel. And all these subjects encourage us to collaborate and communicate.    

Communication is the key to maintaining well-being. It doesn’t matter whether you’re four or 94, speaking to someone about concerns is the first, vitally important, step towards getting help. The classroom collaboration we encourage throughout the school, coupled with individual help and support from teachers and regular communication with home, is central to that.   

Good communication is also essential if we are to continue to provide the right mental health and wellbeing support to meet pupils’ needs. To that end, this September, we’ll be asking children from Years 5 and 6 in the Prep School and throughout the Senior School to complete a questionnaire anonymously as part of a mental health survey we’re carrying out with York St John University.

It will ask students about their life in school, whether they have a good network of friends, whether they go home after school and chat about their day, and about how they relieve any worries.

The survey is voluntary, so pupils have the chance to opt out. But we hope they take part as it will be a litmus test of the mental health of our pupils and will help us identify what we can do to help.

We’re also holding a Senior School Parents’ Forum on June 25th to talk about current wellbeing and issues they may be concerned about, and to discuss how to best deal with them. 

We believe strongly that a positive and supportive environment provides the best setting for young people to thrive. We also believe that an ongoing three-way dialogue between pupils, teachers and home is the best way to help young people develop the resilience and resources to cope with life’s challenges.