In the last few years, mental health awareness has exploded.
It’s on our televisions, apps, newspapers and even in our schools.
This is fantastic – and necessary. But while this surge in awareness has brought many benefits, it’s brought problems too.
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I’ve encountered children, big and small, who proudly tell me that they have depression, anxiety or that they self-harm.
Children who have perhaps been exposed to information on- or offline that they use without any real understanding, perhaps looking for a label or attention or something that excuses them from doing anything that makes them uncomfortable.
And then there are the kids who’ve learned that saying they are having a panic attack means detentions are wiped and all is forgiven. All things considered, it’s no wonder that some of us are sceptical. But please – I implore you – don’t be.
Among that motley crew are many children who are struggling and are in need of help.
They’re the same type of kids who were there 20 years ago, but never had the courage or encouragement to speak up, and so struggled on alone in a culture of getting on with it.
I know, because I was one of them.
Outwardly, I was a hardworking, quiet student, surrounded by kind, supportive teachers and a solid circle of friends. Inwardly, every day was a battle with anxiety, dread and self-loathing.
Nobody knew, because I never said it out loud – something made easier by the fact that mental health wasn’t spoken about at home or at school.
So I got by, somehow, leaving school with a more-than-decent set of GCSEs, and a habit of avoidance that it took years of self-help and therapy to unpick.
I did unpick it though, and nowadays, as a teacher, I’m driven by the need to ensure that my story doesn’t become my students’ story. I see (and support) the unseen.
Here’s how you can, too:
Be available and open
When students come to you with a problem, strive to listen with empathy, putting your own opinions on hold at least for that conversation. This will help, whether they are genuinely struggling or in need of attention.
Take opportunities to find out more about mental health
Talk to staff, take up offers for staff training, ask questions. Learning to spot the signs of true anxiety in the classroom may help you to see your students in a new light, or to offer much-needed help that they’re too frightened to ask for.
Support without enabling avoidance
Just as a pupil with SEND might need a differentiated worksheet in maths, a child with social anxiety might need lots of preparation, support and quiet encouragement to speak in front of their peers.
If they are perhaps faking it, they’ll soon learn that mental illness isn’t a free pass. If they’re genuine, they’ll get exactly what they need: someone who acknowledges and makes provision for their specific needs, but still pushes them to reach their potential.
Talk about mental health
Even better, share your own experiences of vulnerability (where you dare). I can’t imagine the comfort I would have taken at 13 of finding out that it wasn’t just me – that I wasn’t just a dud – and that other people felt as I did.
Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of SEND interventions