‘Drop the New Year’s resolutions – we need a mental health revolution in our schools’

From screen-breaks to mindfulness sessions, there’s a lot more teachers could be doing to support their own and their pupils’ wellbeing, writes the mental health champion for schools

Natasha Devon

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The art of tackling mental health issues can broadly be divided into three strands:

  1. Prevention
    Creating environments and encouraging individuals to practice habits which have been shown to be conducive to good mental health.
  1. First Aid
    Recognising the early stages of mental distress and minimising impact by amplifying the efforts made under the strand above, non-judgmental listening and encouraging the individual concerned to seek appropriate help.
  1. Cure
    Medical intervention for a diagnosable mental illness.

What is interesting is that, while all three of these strands are equally valuable and important, ask most people what springs to mind when you say "mental health" and they leap straight to strand 3. It shows a telling discrepancy in public perceptions of mental and physical health, when we would be more likely to summon initial concepts of healthy eating and exercise (the equivalent to strand 1) than hospitals and surgery (strand 3).

We all have a brain, ergo, whether or not we happen to be one of the quarter of British people who will statistically experience a mental illness, we all have mental health. Furthermore, most mental health issues remain undiagnosed. We all know what it is like to experience stress and for a large proportion of us it’s severe enough to impact on us negatively, yet not so incapacitating that we consider seeking help from a medical professional.

That’s why, as part of my role as mental health champion for schools, I’m gently persuading (read: constantly badgering) the Government to create a campaign around a "Mental Health Five a Day" – official guidelines attainable for the average person and proven to maximise mental wellbeing.

When I wrote my first book in my own name, Fundamentals, I interviewed experts from a broad range of disciplines (psychology, neuroscience, psychiatry, nutrition and sports science, for example) on a huge spectrum of topics relating to mental health. While the methodologies they employed were wildly different, there was a common theme running throughout: all the experts concluded that the small habits we practise each day, the things we don’t consider relevant and important, are incredibly powerful and perhaps the biggest single influence over our day-to-day health. While we might not deem it particularly significant that we gave into temptation and spent another evening on the sofa compulsively checking Facebook while eating crisps instead of going for a walk or meditating for 10 minutes, the evidence paints a very different picture. In short, relatively small changes can make a dramatic and tangible difference when attempting to keep our brains happy.

When it comes to physical health, many people have found themselves locked in an "all or nothing at all" mentality, most vividly evidenced by the recent festive season (in which we are encouraged to force as much food and drink down our protesting gullets as we possibly can) and the period of repentance and misery in which we now find ourselves (celebrity fitness DVD, anyone?). I’m concerned mental health might suffer the same fate, that mind-wellbeing might come to enjoy a reputation for being pertinent only to those wearing silk pyjamas sitting atop a bean bag drinking herbal tea, one leg behind their head in an advanced yoga pose and listening to whale song, in the style of Trudie Styler (I actually think that sounds quite fun, FYI).

The reality is a concerted effort to look after our mental wellbeing can form part of even the most hectic and least Sting-and-Trudie-esque lifestyle. So, with that in mind, my Self-Esteem Team colleagues and I created our campaign #NewYearReVolutions – a 90-second video featuring celebrities including Rachel Riley and Charlotte Crosby pledging to do one simple kindness for their mind in 2016.

We’re hoping we’ll kickstart a mental health revolution instead of the same tired old resolution. Be honest, did that promise to lose half a stone, learn how to crochet or stop thinking bad thoughts about your mother-in-law really pan out? (According to a recent poll for the BBC only one in 10 people sticks to their resolutions so if you answered "yes" you either have a willpower of iron or you should have pledged to stop telling porkies.)

Why not start a mental health revolution in your school? It takes three months to change a habit – that’s roughly one term. Start practising small differences (like having a screen-free day every week, or using break time for a mindfulness exercise) in your school community now and by Easter they’ll be second nature, meaning more health and happiness for staff and students. Let us know how you’re getting on by finding us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

Happy New Year, TES readers!

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Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK.

Find me on Twitter @_natashadevon

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