On Friday, the Self-Esteem Team launched: Letters to Tess, a relentless campaign which will see us write to the prime minister every single day for a year, or until she responds in a meaningful way.
Grace Barrett, Nadia (Nadz) Mendoza and I formed SET in 2012. We each have first-hand experience of mental illness. We each have experience working with children and young people, as well as of the industries which, ever-increasingly in the modern world, impact the way they think and feel about themselves.
In collaboration with four doctors with expertise in mental health and adolescence, we have been visiting UK’s schools and colleges, delivering workshops and presentations for teenagers on mental health, exam stress, body image and increasingly gender stereotyping and consent.
We visit an average of four schools per week, covering comprehensives, academies, free schools, independent schools and special needs schools.
Our book The Self-Esteem Team’s Guide to Sex, Drugs & WTFs?!! won an award which means it is now available ‘on prescription’ – free in every library in Britain for young people who are struggling and want some advice from big sister figures. We’re contacted every day by young people and teachers on our ever-growing online networks (run by Nadz). All of this has given us an unique insight into the needs of the education sector in supporting wellbeing.
We know that a one-off assembly or PSHE lesson on mental health isn’t enough.
'Carve out real time'
It is no use the DfE issuing ‘recommendations’ and non-mandatory pseudo-directives on wellbeing, expecting schools will somehow magically find the solution to the growing mental health crisis in young people without proper guidance and permissions.
Ofsted has increased the criteria relating to mental health in its assessment framework, so it’s time schools were given something tangible, useful and with the resources and finances which would allow them to realistically provide what is being asked of them.
The work of SET is aimed primarily at the layer of children and young people who often fly below the radar.
Those whose symptoms aren’t severe enough to qualify for a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) appointment, but who are struggling emotionally or mentally to the extent that it is impacting their ability to function or their quality of life. It is these children who so often rely on their teachers to provide ongoing support. What they need is actually something more subtle and nuanced than what lies within the remit of CAMHS, but it is also above and beyond what the majority of teachers feel confident and adequately trained to administer.
Teachers are already overworked and schools stretched: SET know this. However, we believe just ten minutes a day spent on wellbeing could have a significant impact on the mental health of both teachers and pupils, as well as the culture of schools.
Too often, we only acknowledge mental health when someone starts outwardly showing the signs of a mental illness. In fact, mental health is universally relevant because we all have a brain.
Just as we learn that eating well, exercising and drinking water will provide a basic level of physical health, there are mental health equivalents. Learning these basic skills won’t cure all mental illnesses, just as eating well can’t necessarily protect you from cancer, but it will, we believe, prevent many mental health issues and much emotional distress. It would be a start, in an arena where so many feel confused and unsupported.
In August 2015, we launched ‘Letters to Dave’. We wrote every day to David Cameron asking for a meeting to present our ideas on how wellbeing could be incorporated more effectively into the culture of schools and done relatively simply, cost effectively and without burdening teachers with huge amounts of extra training.
At letter 76 we were asked by the DfE to stop the campaign and offered a meeting in return. The subsequent meeting was brief, dismissive and amounted to nothing. The civil servant we met actually rolled his eyes at us at one point (it was when we mentioned that we hoped such an initiative might positively impact teacher mental health, too).
Undeterred, we created ‘Get SET’ – a series of ten minute wellbeing exercises we had designed. We trialled them over the summer term 2016 in a selection of schools throughout the UK (again encompassing SEN, state and independent) and worked with University College London to measure their impact.
Now, we want Theresa May to meet with us so we can present the results of our study.
If, as is suggested in the IPPR recommendations of May, schools are consulted as part of the local transformation plans and given a budget specifically for mental health by their local authorities, then our vision of incorporating ten minutes a day of quality mental health education could easily become a reality.
But, like all campaigns, this means nothing without public support. Our full letter to Theresa May is doing the rounds on social media. You can find on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages (we are SET_HQ).
If, like us, you are tired of non-ring-fenced ‘investments’ into mental health never making it to people in distress on the ground, tired of empty promises, pretty words and PR stunts please share it (you’d be surprised how much government departments care about what teachers write on Twitter). Hashtag #Letters2Tess.
Occasionally, all of us at SET feel like an annoying wasp the government continually tries to swat away. That can get pretty exhausting, but we care too much to stop buzzing. But you cannot swat away a swarm. Join our swarm and demand real change.
Natasha Devon is the former government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE