Talking about mental health

This week, 7th to 13th February, is Children’s Mental Health Week. The theme this year is “growing together,” as we are all encouraged to think about how we have grown and how we can help others to grow.

When I was at school, mental health was not discussed at all. As I have grown, it has moved out from the shadows and we now live in a society which is much more open and accepting to discussions about mental health and mental wellbeing. My own learning and understanding has also grown over this time, especially as the subject is so important for all educators to understand. Mental health, after all, has a direct impact on learning.

Natasha Devon (source)

One of the “lightbulb moments” for me in understanding mental health and wellbeing was when I listened to Natasha Devon, a well-known mental health campaigner, talking about the subject on the Are You Convinced? podcast. On the podcast, she invited listeners to think about mental health in three steps, by drawing the equivalent to our physical health.

Keeping healthy

In the first step, she talked about proactive or preventative steps that we take to keep ourselves physically healthy. This might include eating healthily, getting plenty of rest, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and taking taking regular exercise. What similar steps might we take to ensure that we keep ourselves mentally healthy?

Reflecting on this, I was able to think of a few things that would help me. For example, I might limit my intake of social media or cut out things that I know are likely to cause me stress. I might ensure I am talking to my friends and family, sharing any worries or concerns – and making sure that I am a listening ear for them too. Getting plenty of rest, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and taking regular exercise are just as good for mental health as they are for physical health. And I monitor my physical health regularly, so I know when I need to exercise more, or get more sleep – the same is true of keeping myself mentally healthy.

Everyday health issues

Natasha Devon went on to say that we all experience everyday issues with our physical health. We all get cuts and scrapes, colds and headaches, bangs and bruises in our everyday life. We are able to manage them ourselves, and we wouldn’t seek a doctor’s advice unless it was chronic, serious or stopped us from doing our everyday activities for more than a couple of days. But we might seek advice from the NHS website, or a pharmacist. We might put a plaster on, or take a paracetamol, until we had recovered.

Devon says that the same is true of our mental health. Worries, fears, everyday stresses and anxieties, feeling sad or unhappy – these happen to all of us. It isn’t pleasant, and it might knock us back, and we might sometimes need a little help to be able to cope. The mental health “plaster” or “paracetamol” might be talking it through with friends or family, perhaps speaking to your tutor, teacher or a trusted adult, or turning to online resources or apps for help. There are a range of these available:

Serious Health Issues

Finally, Natasha Devon argued, some of us experience serious physical health issues. These are relatively rare, but serious. With our physical health, she talked about chronic conditions, serious illnesses, infections, broken bones – the sorts of things that have a significant impact on our daily lives for a long period of time, that we may be hospitalised for, and that we need professional help to deal with. In some cases, these problems can be “fixed” and we will get better and back to normal. In other cases, they can be treated, but we will need to learn to live with them as part of our lives, and cope with the impact that they have on our daily activities.

The same is true of mental health. Some of us, at some point, will suffer with mental health issues that are chronic and completely debilitating. In these situations we may be hospitalised, or we may be unable to carry on our daily activities. In these cases, we cannot recover without professional help. We would not try and fix a broken leg ourselves: the same is true when we are “broken” mentally.

The role of the school

I found Natasha Devon’s characterisation of mental health, as equivalent to physical health, really helpful. We all have mental health, just as we have physical health. It can fluctuate on a daily basis; on some days we feel better than others. Aches and pains and ups and downs are part of normal life. We don’t ignore them; we respond and take actions to help ourselves feel better. If things get really serious, we seek professional help from a doctor.

Just like with physical health, the school has a key role in keeping our students healthy. We educate our students about their physical health through our curriculum – the importance of a good diet and exercise, how to look after ourselves – and we do the same with mental health. When students experience a bump or a scrape or a bruise – mental or physical – we can help to a certain extent, and signpost information to assist, but usually if it’s serious we will suggest referring to a doctor. Our school is not a hospital; our expertise is education, not medicine. We wouldn’t try to set a broken limb in a science lab: the chances of us getting it wrong and making it worse are quite high. So we rely on experts in the health services to take over.

What we can do is listen to the experts. We have plans in place to support students with serious, chronic or significant physical and mental health needs, so those students are able to access education alongside their peers. We can help them when things are difficult, and we can work together to find ways to overcome challenges.

And, above all, we can make it clear to our students that they need to look after their mental health just as much as they look after their physical health. They need to talk to their families, their friends, Academy staff and, if necessary, professional experts to make sure they are able to keep learning successfully.

I’m pleased we’re talking openly about mental health nowadays. I think it’s better for everyone.

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