Reading for mental health is a 'sign of the times'

Reading activities can help students' mental wellbeing as much as their literacy, says school writer-in-residence Cathy Forde

Cathy Forde

Reading for mental health is a 'sign of the times'

It is a sign of the times: my brief when appointed Scottish Book Trust writer in residence at All Saints Secondary School in Glasgow, was to create activities focusing on improving mental wellbeing as much as developing pupils’ writing and reading. I would be working with S3, a year group identified as particularly affected by life challenges that impact on general attainment.

If what I have outlined sounds like a grave and daunting responsibility, I am delighted to report that the experience proved one of the most positive I have known in years of working with young people. In terms of quality work produced with no feelings of pressure, it was a success.

That is the lovely thing about teenagers: they surprise you (and often surprise themselves and each other). It helps when the staff are on board with a project: teacher Julie Wilson and her wonderful colleagues could not have been more supportive of my proposals for the residency.

Background: Counselling offered to all Scottish secondary students

Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children: key findings

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I built a workshop around wishes and dreams, an accessible portal as we all have them. Success was dependent on every pupil being able to participate in the writing exercises, regardless of ability. I invited them to list the things they wanted to be when they were small, the teachers joining pupils and myself in revealing their childhood dreams. And the ice was broken.

After reading an extract from my novel Fat Boy Swim, in which the main character Jimmy, a third-year Glaswegian schoolboy, suffers rock bottom self-esteem because of his obesity and the bullying he endures, I invited the pupils to make three wishes.

This is when the tone of the workshops took an unexpected turn. So few of the wishes were frivolous, or unrealistic. For every desire to be "rich", "famous" or "living in a big house", there were six wishing to do well in school. These 14-year-olds aspired to the things that matter: happiness, careers, families. They wanted to repay their parents for the sacrifices they had made in raising them. Some of them wept expressing this desire.

These young people, who five minutes before had been giggling over dreams of being princesses or invisible or superheroes, suddenly became very mature. They applauded each other’s responses with utter respect and spontaneity, visibly moved by classmates' revelations.

When I asked them to express their wishes for the world, the profundity of the responses exceeded anything I would have believed: they wanted to end wars, deal with climate change, sort out homelessness, welcome refugees, stop bullying, accept everyone for who they are regardless of race, or faith or sexuality...

Their selflessness moved their teachers and me to tears, such was the power of their words and the rationale behind their choices.

For my return workshop, there was more levity as we switched focus to exercises exploring personal happiness. I asked the pupils to plot the little things in life that brought them joy when they were small, and things which made them happy now.

Each pupil created a piece of "happiness art": cloudscapes, football pitches, butterflies and balloons reflected where these young people found joy in being childlike again.

Their final activity was to profess three "non-negotiables" to improve their quality of life. With few exceptions, they vowed to spend time with family and friends, make time for exercise to keep healthy, and work hard in school. 

It was such a privilege and joy for me to connect with these young people. They were so honest and open. Each of them sealed a secret wish in a golden envelope to be returned on their last day of school. I hope they all come true.

Cathy Forde is an author and playwright based in Glasgow, known for her young adult novels, who works in schools with all ages and abilities

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Cathy Forde

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