Mental health matters. There should be no stigma or barriers attached to struggling with your emotions or seeking help for your mental health.
It’s World Mental Health Day today and this year’s theme is ‘mental health is a universal right’. The reality is that all of us, at some point in our lifetime, will struggle with our mental health; children and young people included. As we increasingly hear of how they are struggling, it feels more important than ever to champion the mental health and wellbeing of our young people. National trends reveal how issues such as emotional school-based avoidance, anxiety, emotional regulation and the lasting impact of a global pandemic are impacting their wellbeing, and yet there are severe waiting lists across the country – the resources do not match the increased demand.
I believe that schools are best placed to nurture and support young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Early intervention can positively change the trajectory of mental health difficulties. We have embedded structures across Highgate to guide our pupils in understanding, recognising and seeking support for themselves, and looking out for others. By regularly raising awareness of the range of mental health needs and educating pupils on the threshold for seeking help, we hope that young people will reach out as early as possible. The underpinning of our work is a whole school approach; working closely with staff, parents and pupils to prioritise pupil wellbeing.
The wellbeing function was introduced to Highgate some years ago, as part of our pastoral care strategy. I believe there isn’t a one-size fits all approach for mental health and wellbeing, and our robust and diverse team provide a range of expertise and skills sets. Our team includes nurses, wellbeing practitioners and counsellors, who all work closely with pastoral leads across the school.
In the Pre-Prep, mindfulness is incorporated into their regular routines, giving them the words and language to build self-awareness and recognition of their own feelings and knowing how to manage them. Children learn best when they feel safe, settled and emotionally prepared for the day ahead, which is why we include mindful moments in our daily activities. A play therapist works three days a week, based on referrals and assessment from the Deputy Head (Pastoral) and me.
The Junior School develops on the wellbeing work in Pre-Prep and offers the foundation for future relationships in the Senior School. Typically speaking, parents take a step back at secondary level, but if we have that relationship already, we have a family history and familiarity. We are keen on a relationship-based approach to working with pupils and their families. There are two counsellors who work three days a week, working on a best-fit basis: thinking about the counsellors’ experience and background, collaborating with the parents to think about who would work best for the family, and the child’s presentation and need.
We recently introduced a Family Wellbeing Practitioner to the Junior School team, who acts as a bridge between the wellbeing and pastoral service, helping to assess situations and tailor the response to suit each family’s individual needs. She has been a warm and welcome addition to the team, joining us in offering that reassuring presence to parents and pupils.
In the Senior School, there are three counsellors who work across the whole week, offering varied skill sets which enable us to adapt to a range of pupil needs. There are still stigmas around mental health and seeking help, so confidentiality is important for young people. Three wellbeing practitioners offer daily drop-in slots for pupils to seek support for their wellbeing and to emotionally regulate. Practitioners are more flexible and creative in their approach, adapting to the situation and working across pupils, staff and families to offer support.
We have a team of trained medical professionals who are available to provide treatment and care for pupils with physical ailments and additional medical needs. They work closely together with our wellbeing practitioners, where physical and mental health needs overlap. For example, some pupils who go to the medical centre with stomach pains, may actually be experiencing anxiety, and the nurses can assess that and refer to the wellbeing team.
Collaboration with parents and colleagues is key to the success of our work. Our wellbeing team works in partnership with staff to equip them with knowledge and skills to support pupils. I’d like to think it’s about swapping and sharing expertise. The teachers have a good understanding of the school and the young people in their classroom. We have the knowledge around mental health and psychological development – it’s about pulling all that information together and embedding that collaboration.
Similarly, I say to the parents, “you are the expert on your child. You know them best. So, let’s work together – you bring information, context and personal circumstances, I’ll provide the mental health expertise, and we’ll pull it together to develop a support plan.” One can’t work without the other.
Anxiety is a topical theme, especially academic anxiety and exam stress. We work with key staff to normalise academic struggle and help pupils embrace challenges within the classroom. We try to support them in this by teaching them about self-regulation, and the difference between healthy stress which can be motivator, to when anxiety becomes something to seek help in managing. We also help them see that exam stress is not the end goal, by celebrating the pleasure of learning, focussing on wider interests and values, and keeping personal wellbeing at the centre. We also deliver this message to parents via workshops so the message is reinforced at home.
Seeing the progress, it feels like our message is coming across: wellbeing and mental health are important. I don’t want to be the go-to person for mental health and wellbeing, I want to share my knowledge and embed good wellbeing practices in the school system, thus equipping people to address their mental health and wellbeing either via seeking help or taking care of their wellbeing.