Monthly Archives: February 2015

What roles do schools play in promoting and looking after young people’s mental health?

“Teachers are not mental health professionals” is a phrase I have heard often, both in and out of school. Most recently I heard Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education say this on Wednesday in the Houses of Parliament during a discussion on mental health in schools. A group of young people, including myself, were invited to speak to Nicky Morgan and Sam Gyimah to see what schools are already doing what more we think should be happening.

The truth is that no, teachers are not mental health professionals. But that does not mean that they cannot have an awareness of mental health problems, either in a personal or professional capacity. Given that the statistics are that 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, the remaining 3 in 4 will come into contact with someone who is struggling. For those who work in schools, the person they come into contact with may well be a student. A majority of 5-16 year olds are in schools from 9-3:30, Monday-Friday. Spending so much time at school means that staff are in a prime position to notice changes in a young person and intervene. This does not have to fall on the shoulders of one lone teacher, it’s a team effort. Noticing subtle changes in behavior, attendance, concentration and willingness to engage can make huge differences and will most likely be picked up across the board. My mum is a HLTA and came home the other day having received a refresher safeguarding training. She’s never had any training on spotting mental health problems or promoting wellbeing/good mental health. In fact, it is not anywhere in teacher training.

How a child or young person presents with a mental health problem also varies from person to person. A young person ‘acting up’ is not always as simple as that. From the ages of 13-15 I would truant pretty much every day and get sent out of all of my lessons for being disruptive. I spent the majority of my time on report and with my head on the desk. I refused to do PE as I didn’t want people to see that I was self-harming. But I wasn’t a bad kid, I was just struggling with my mental health and not sure what to do about it, yet I knew people who were struggling with similar issues and they isolated themselves instead. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to trying to spot people who need help, and it requires a great deal of looking beyond the surface.

Everyone is talking about early intervention. Schools are a perfect place for us to help young people. With training staff can feel confident when talking about mental health to students and be able to spot warning signs. I’m in no means saying that we’re expecting teachers to become psychiatrists, the opposite in fact. School staff are school staff. They are not clinical. A teacher does not have the same negative connotations attached to the name as a mental health professional may. They are pretty consistent and there most days. This offers young people a different environment to talk about things that are concerning them, which may feel easier than seeking help from mental health services.

A basic requirement should be for all staff to at the very least know how to signpost to services and make referrals. That way if someone feels unable to help, the young person is able to receive help from an external source. Some young people may not want to talk to a teacher. For some school itself may be the problem! There needs to be a joined up approach between services, schools working alongside CAMHS/social services/YOTs etc in order to best support a young person. It’s by no means rocket science, nor is it impossible. But an attitude shift is required, from “mental health isn’t my problem” to ” mental health is everyone’s problem”. We preach about the importance of looking after your physical health, eating your 5 day, exercising and cutting out rubbish from our diets. But where is the emphasis on keeping mentally well? Where is the impact that lack of sleep can have on your mental health taught? I often go into schools and talk about wellbeing/mental health, and a recurring theme is that initially most young people do not even realize that we all have mental health. For as long as I can remember I have had an awareness of my physical health and have been able to tell if I was unwell or not. So why is it not the same for our emotional health?

We don’t need a massive overhaul in the education system, we just need small yet effective conversations to take place, and the training to make sure that all school staff feel confident in recognizing young people who need help. A lot of the emphasis in schools is towards passing exams, anxiety provoking for most in itself, but for those with underlying mental health problems it can be overwhelming. In order to succeed you need to be relatively healthy in all aspects of life and that’s why it’s so important for schools to play an active role in promoting good mental health and supporting students who are finding things difficult.

Art and mental health?

Art is increasingly playing a role in people’s recovery from mental health problems, serving for some as a way to make sense of their world, to express feelings or to communicate. Art plays a unique role in each individual’s journey, mine included. While I didn’t want this blog to become too personal in terms of my mental health, with recent news coverage of the Bethlem Gallery opening at the Bethlem Royal Hospital (sister hospital to mine, the Maudsley) I felt like reflecting a little on how art has (or hasn’t) helped me!

If at any point before the age of 15 you had mentioned art to me I would have brushed you off. If you had mentioned how art can be used to help people who struggle with their mental health I would have most likely laughed. Not because I was an ignorant 15 year old, but because art has always been a sore subject for me. I had, for years, resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t draw to save my life. My confidence was also far too low to comfortably engage in drama lessons at school, which knocked any notion of theatre as good thing in any way right out of my mind. The only art form I would have embraced would be music! I got into my secondary school on a music scholarship playing the clarinet, and music has always served as a rock for me.

When I was 15 I went into hospital. On my CAMHS ward there was a lovely art psychotherapist who ran an art therapy group every Thursday with the help of the consultant. I spent the entirety of my first admission dismissing the group, instead using the time to have my weekly Thursday post-lunch siesta. I tried very hard to convince all those around me who mentioned it that art made me incredibly angry, which would be counter-productive as it was meant to be a therapeutic group. I was eventually discharged having done practically no art at all.
A month later I was re-admitted and this is when I really caught the art bug. Over time I began to go and soon it was a highlight of my week – I’d purposely re-arrange any other appointments/commitments in order to attend! Around the same time I disclosed some things that I had never previously spoken about, and art gave me a chance to process it almost. It became the tool I turned to the most in order to communicate with staff, both about how I was feeling and about things that had happened. It also gave me the ability to say things without really saying anything. I could put things down on paper that to me were monumental, but would put have meant anything to others from glancing at it. It served in giving me some control in terms of what I could tell others as all around me things weren’t in my control at all.

That summer the Young Vic came to us and did some amazing work. It was my first introduction to theatre and how it could be used beyond the west-end. Although being in hospital is not the best of places, with their involvement they transformed my summer and no doubt those of everyone else on the ward. That was the first time in my life where I’d actually thought “hang on a minute, theatre can be quite good?!” We had parties, massive banquets, tree houses built on-site, a Ferris Bueller evening in the gym (everything had been made into an American gym/school hall, with a screening of Ferris Buellers Day Off)… We were even given 2 blank white gazebos one day with a LOT of paint and let at the walls! It was totally engaging and just brilliant fun, and completely transported me away from the real world where I was sectioned and on 1:1 in a psychiatric hospital(!)

Since my discharge from hospital I was lucky enough to be able to go on work experience at the Young Vic which was great! The team are lovely and totally dedicated to their work. I’ve been involved in a couple of projects since and while I’m still not confident from an acting point of view, I now see how immersing theatre can be and completely understand how people would find that helpful.

We make our feelings known on the lack of funding for mental health services, but from what I can see the arts have it just as bad! I would completely advocate for art (in any form) to be used to aid people’s recovery and sadly I don’t see it enough. If anyone is struggling and has never considered art, I would recommend it. Figure out what you prefer, if any, and go for it. Art doesn’t have to be drawings National Gallery worthy, they can be scribbles, or music… Just about anything.

Compulsory sex ed for 5 year olds?

TW: mention of sexual abuse, please take care.

A few days ago, Tristram Hunt MP, Labour’s shadow education minister unveiled plans to make sex and relationship education (SRE) compulsory from Key Stage 1, when pupils are between 5-7 years old. It is part of a bid to tackle homophobia in schools and make them “zero-tolerance” areas for homophobic bullying.

I completely stand by these proposals! I tried to look online in order to gauge other people’s responses to it. In doing so I stumbled on the Daily Mail website, and the comments there completely reinforced my beliefs.
It is so important that SRE is compulsorily taught from an early age. With education comes empowerment. I’ve heard someone say that children knowing about sex at 5 is wrong – what’s wrong is some children being subjected to traumatic experiences and abuse but being too scared/confused/uninformed to feel able to seek help. That is what is wrong. I’m by no means saying that it’s as clear cut as sex ed being taught and all abuse/exploitation being eradicated, but it is absolutely vital to lay down the basics and let children know that their bodies are theirs and no-one else’s. This message may not be one given to them by their parents/carers so it is important that they do receive it from somewhere, school in this case.

On Wednesday we had a YoungMindsVs hub meeting, which focused on sexual health for the first part. Some people thought that sex ed at 5 was too young, why not save it until puberty? For me and so many others this would have been too late. Children need to know about consent, their body and inappropriate behaviour as early as they can. Why would anyone oppose to empowering our youth?

The #camhslogic tag

As a warning – this blog post may read as more of a rant than much else. It may also be quite short.

The last post I wrote was on social media and mental health. This is a branch of that – the #camhslogic tag. For years people on Twitter have used it (and lolcamhs) to express their annoyance with CAMHS services. I first became aware of it when I was around 13 in 2011 on Tumblr and I still come across it to this day on various social media platforms.

But the tag seems to deter people from accessing CAMHS services. Countless times I have seen young people asking others about what CAMHS is like, only to get told that they are disastrous and a service to be avoided. I honestly believe that the tag has damaged the reputation CAMHS has, both online and offline. Which is awful! I have been in services since the age of 13 and I have generally had positive experiences. There will always be exceptions but I do think that all staff do the best that they can to care for their patients. This isn’t just in my local mental health trust (SLaM) either, yesterday I found myself in a crisis in Sussex and the staff I came into contact with were brilliant. But the world of social media for a teenager can be convincing and I know that if people slate CAMHS to the extent which they are slated online it does have an effect. When I was first told that a referral had gone through I tried to research it online (although initially spelt it as cammes so didn’t get very far haha!) and if I’d found some of this content, I’m not sure I’d have gone to my assessment.

I only ever hear “CAMHS are rubbish/I hate CAMHS/they don’t know what they are doing” I’m sure that some comments are warranted, I’m not saying that all care is top-notch all the time, but it is unfair. There’s no money. Many staff are over-worked. They have to make difficult decisions day in day out. Depending on who they are seeing they may be constantly managing risk. When do they let someone who is alluding to the possibility that the may harm themselves go? There is 1 free CAMHS bed in the whole of England tonight, who aren’t accepting admissions overnight. So hospital isn’t an option. They’ve got to let them go and manage risk in the community. That’s their call. That’s not an easy call. Even if they aren’t working with high risk patients, it’s not a walk in the park.

I think that young people should cut them some slack. I also think that professionals should also take a look at the tag and see what they make of it! Maybe we should be making more of an effort to involve young people in PPI events and encourage them to make a difference within the service, rather than turn to social media.
(The #crisisteamfail is also a hashtag which is fairly similar that was quite popular a while ago, but more geared toward AMHS/crisis teams.)