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Independent schools promoting a healthy state of mind


Victoria Lambert looks at how schools are working to protect their pupils from the pervading worries surrounding mental health.

Parents may not want to admit it, but sadly, for some of their children, joy can be in short supply during their formative years. Wellbeing as an attainable skill hasn’t been a high priority on the school curriculum, until now.

Across the country, heads are beginning to recognise the importance of key skills such as resilience, reflection and the need to build self-esteem as a proactive and integral part of the curriculum.

Following the work of trailblazer Sir Anthony Seldon, former Master of Wellington College in Berkshire, who initiated happiness lessons in 2006, seminars on topics, from confidence to gratitude, plus mindfulness and meditation workshops, are finding a place in already busy timetables. Pastoral care is being stepped up – and there is now more support for children struggling with depression.

Our children need this help. Sir Anthony’s view is unequivocal: a school’s role is to teach ‘life skills and attitudes that are conducive to living a flourishing life and making a positive contribution to society; to help children discover that bringing happiness to others leads to a much deeper sense of fulfilment than any A grade or iPhone ever could.’

He warns. ‘Sadly, our current education system focuses too heavily on academic learning and attainment and not enough on education for life. Too often it fails to support the many children who are struggling to cope with anxiety, stress and depression.’ 

Indeed, there seems to be an epidemic of depression among young people in the UK. According to Young Minds, a charity committed to improving the emotional and mental wellbeing of children and young adults, over 850,000 five to 16 year olds have a mental illness. The number of fifteen to 16 year old teenagers with depression has nearly doubled between 1980 and 2010.

Some of these cases can be ascribed to better and earlier diagnosis, but children seem to be under more pressure than ever before owing to the competition and bullying associated with social media, exam expectations, breakdown of family units and even what’s on the news.

Joanna’s mental health deteriorated when she turned 11 and hit puberty. Her father, John, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, was horrified to see his little girl become incredibly moody, hyper sensitive and aggressive at home. She developed insomnia and started to miss school. Yet, as she had just started her period Joanna’s parents attributed the mood swings to the expected ‘teenage horror years’.

When Joanna rolled up her sleeve to reveal an armful of cuts six months later the truth hit them ‘like a sledgehammer,’ says John. ‘What had happened? We asked ourselves. I had read about medical matters, but I didn’t have a clue about mental health.’ In fact, Joanna, now 14, was exhibiting the first signs of a major depressive disorder (MDD).

Annie, 19, first began manifesting symptoms of bipolar disorder at 13. ‘I had long periods of depression and would stay in my room,’ she explains. ‘Then I’d swing into periods of high energy when I couldn’t sit still. I would get angry over nothing and lash out verbally. I began to self-harm.’ Now a young activist for the charity Young Minds, Annie’s movement through several several schools as she followed her father’s work transfers, helped mask the problem. It was only when a friend intervened that she was referred to the school counsellor.

‘My GP said she would refer me to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) but there was an eight-month waiting list. Thankfully, my parents were able to go privately instead. Soon I was seeing a psychologist once a week, and a psychiatrist who prescibed mood stabilisers.’

A few decades ago, Annie and Joanna’s stories would have seemed extraordinary, but now many parents admit to some recognition, having witnessed symptoms of anxiety and depression either in their own children or in those of friends or extended family.

Worringly, these adolescents don’t seem to know where to turn to for help. Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, says that children do not have the confidence to go to the doctor with mental health issues but don’t turn to their parents either. ‘It is a desperate state of affairs when they would prefer to roam around the internet or ask a friend the same age for help first.’

Getting treatment

Even when children do speak up, treatment can be difficult to access as CAMHS is struggling with soaring referrals and admissions.

John recognises that situation well. His GP was happy to refer Joanna to CAMHS but warned it could take 12 months for an appointment to become available. ‘Joanna’s school was supportive and understanding,’ he says, ‘but we were just getting by and she was still self-harming.’

‘In October last year, Joanna’s condition deteriorated. She was barely eating and the insomnia was worse. She couldn’t concentrate, the self-harming developed into suicidal thoughts and we made several visits to A&E after suicidal episodes.

‘We were desperate for help but we were told Joanna didn’t meet the criteria for a psychiatrist appointment through CAMHS. We paid for a private appointment. In less than 20 minutes, Joanna was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD). We were warned it would be a long haul and a rough ride, and that, although medication could alleviate the most serious symptoms such as suicidal tendencies, she would need counselling and therapy in order to have a functioning life.’

A year later her parents report that Joanna is ‘in a much better condition; her medication has been slowly increased,’ and that they have learned how to help her but, her father says he is concerned about the lack of knowledge staff at her school had about mental health issues. They had tried to be helpful but their experience was of girls who have self-harmed or been bereaved, not of someone with MDD. ‘Their focus was on getting her into school so at least she was accessing education, but we worried the stress of school might trigger an episode.

‘I remember wishing she had cancer, because then others would understand what was going on, and there is a well-trodden treatment path to follow. With depression, we had to make it up as we went along.’

This well-meaning but somewhat patchy approach to treating teenage depression could be about to change. Last year the Department of Education published a report, ‘Mental health and behaviour in schools’, which advises schools how to support young people with mental health needs, including making referrals to a specialist service. Education and Childcare Minister, Sam Gyimah – the department’s first minister for mental health – explains: ‘Many schools and colleges are already doing much to ensure pupils are given the help they need during times of pressure, but we want to do more to enable them to address the challenges they face head on.

‘That’s why we’ve published guidance for schools and teachers on mental health and how to deliver high quality counselling services, as well as launching a joint £3m pilot with NHS England to test a single point of contact in schools and health services. This government is also investing £1.4bn in children and young people’s mental health over the next five years.’

Top-down support from the government is one thing but Young Minds would like to see a ‘whole school approach’. Lucie Russell, director of campaigns and media, explains: ‘We need to build resilience in young people. Not just through PSHE lessons or individual counselling but involving everyone in the school with an emphasis on the most vulnerable.’

That means academic staff keeping an eye on over-achievers putting themselves under too much pressure, and the canteen staff noticing who is not eating healthy meals and not commenting on weight. ‘Everyone has to understand they have a role to play in building resilience of young people in the school,’ she says, ‘a piecemeal solution isn’t enough.’ The charity runs an impressive selection of courses in schools to help them develop frameworks to support children going through adversity.

Whole child principle

At Newland College in Chalfont St Giles, Bucks, the school ethos centres on the ‘whole child’. Pupils are taught to look at the world with a rounded perspective as they work towards their IB exams. Academic studies are complemented by yoga, mindfulness and wellbeing sessions. The school’s marketing manager, Richard Kelly, suffers from depression himself and supports the Matthew Elvidge Trust, which aims to increase awareness of depression and any signs that may lead to suicide. He echoes the Young Minds’ hope for an integrated approach to mental health care. ‘There is no point in one person doing an annual assembly on the topic; it needs to be interwoven into each year, with schools using the same progressive language to understand and unlock emotions and give children the right kind of support.’

Interestingly, independent schools may have specific issues to address. Alexis Hesketh of PAPYRUS, a charity aimed at preventing young suicide, explains: ‘Boarding for the first time can be stressful when it comes at a time when you are also facing individual personal change. Teenagers may not enjoy school but have no way to tell their parents. They may worry about letting others into their confidence. And they may struggle to access services too, worrying whether counselling sessions will take place during school time. Will they suffer academically by missing lessons? Will it make them feel isolated or stigmatised? So, when looking at schools, the questions needs to be asked: does the medical centre have understanding nurses and good facilities? How do schools monitor restrictions on social media and internet use? Does your child suffer from any additional pressures by attending an academic or high-calibre school?’

Of course, many schools are already taking positive mental health seriously. Cheltenham Ladies’ College launched a wellbeing programme in September, which gives all girls the opportunity to experience a broad range of relevant topics to help them flourish and develop resilience, including healthy lifestyles, coping with stress and anxiety, study skills, tolerance and discrimination, peer pressure and mindfulness. At King Edward’s School, Birmingham, a number of teaching staff have been trained to offer counselling to boys and confidential sessions are offered by Open Door Youth Counselling Ltd twice a week.

But we all need to get better at actually talking to teenagers, according to Rachel Kelly, author of Black Rainbow, which describes how poetry helped her overcome depression.

Kelly, who attended St Paul’s Girls’ School, with its academic pressures, did not suffer from depression until she was in her early 30s, and a mother of two small children. But the clues were present in adolescence: ‘I was anxious; not a good sleeper; a ruminative thinker, worried about the future and regretful of the past. I was a results-driven perfectionist.’

Now an ambassador for mental health charity SANE and vice president of United Response, a charity that provides a range of services for people with learning disabilities, mental health needs or physical disabilities, Kelly also goes into schools to talk to young people.

She worries that children don’t have a chance to be teenagers any more. ‘Their worries are the same as ours. They find social media and relationships stressful, and fret about work-life balance. Yet, the teenage brain is very different from an adult one.’

Kelly – whose latest book Walking on Sunshine is full of tips, tools and positive ideas – uses workshops to teach an evidence-based approach to mental health: ‘Breathing exercises are the easiest way to be in the moment, plus mindfulness and meditation. But young people also need to learn to look after brain health in a practical way. That means taking vitamin D in the winter and foods that boost serotonin levels – what I call happy foods, such as lean protein and dark chocolate. Exercise is important too. If you want to address anxiety and depression, you need to break into a sweat.

‘Then there are strategies for the mind. I suggest recording three things every day for which you can express gratitude. Plus, I ask them, do you make a difference in your world, do you help others?’ But society must take a lead, she adds: ‘We need a redefinition of what we think of as success. We need to allow for nuance and subtlety – and accept there are different ways of flourishing.’

Annie would surely agree – her illness was so bad between the ages of 16 to 18 that she had to take time out of school. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 16, bipolar disease at 17 and borderline personality disorder at 18. But now Annie is back at sixth-form college and has just been offered a place to study politics at university.

She is not critical about her school: ‘Looking back, I really rated the school where I took my GCSEs – it was amazing; I could go to the assistant head all the time. She was a lovely person. If only all schools were so open and well informed.’

Joanna’s father, John, has wise words for other parents: ‘I would say, get on to the CAMHS list as soon as possible, even though they may be almost a barrier to treatment in some cases. Be persistent and keep on at them for help. And if you have the means, go private.’

He suggests you sift other people’s advice carefully. ‘It was meant well but was terrible. Some suggested our boundaries weren’t firm enough or that the internet was the cause.

‘But, in hindsight, banning the internet would have made Joanna feel worse. Her phone was and is a lifeline. Social media has helped her stay in touch with friends via WhatsApp and Instagram. So I would certainly advise caution about turning off the WiFi at home. I had a hell of an argument with the school about that.’

He also suggests reading up on symptoms. ‘My daughter has the most common form of mental illness, yet it took a year to get a diagnosis – via a private appointment. What if your child’s illness is less common?’

He believes it is vital to keep trying to engage your child in fun activities. ‘Get them out of the house with friends, and don’t feel slighted if you make a plan and they aren’t well enough to join in. Just keep finding ways to help them find enjoyment in life again.’

Young Minds; Rachel Kelly

Some names have been changed.