'Pupils' mental wellbeing is something that needs to be consistently reinforced'

7th September 2015 at 06:00
Natasha Devon
The newly appointed mental health champion for schools explains how she hopes to work with teachers - but not add to their workload

I have a confession to make: I am not a middle aged man in a suit. I’m therefore probably about as far away from your mind’s notion of what a Tory government-appointed ‘Tsar’ should look like as it’s possible to be. So, what exactly qualifies me, a columnist for Cosmopolitan Magazine and former model, to take on the crucial role of mental health champion for schools? 


It was in 2007 that I took my first tentative steps into a local secondary school, to interview hundreds of teenagers and ask what they felt was missing from their PSHE programme. I’d just recovered from an eating disorder that had seen me go from straight A student to depressed, unemployed 25 year old. Yet I knew it wasn’t about me. It was about giving young people what my own education had lacked: Something that would have sewn the seeds of resilience to tackle the parts of life you can’t learn from books. I collated the thoughts of girls and boys aged 13 to 18, consulted with psychologists, counsellors and experts and from there my now multi-award-winning lesson plans were born.


Since then, members of my organisation, the Self-Esteem Team, have worked with more than 50,000 teenagers in 250 schools in both the state and independent sector, throughout the UK. I personally visit an average of three schools per week during term time. I’ve had the privilege of sitting in hundreds of staffrooms, gleaning opinions and knowledge from teachers. 


Under the hugely unpopular ‘Era of Gove’, frustration and anger was particularly abundant. “We wish there was someone in our corner,” one teacher told me. “The unions have a certain reputation, but we’re not opposing these changes because we’re scared of extra work, it’s because they’re not the best thing for our pupils”. 


To that teacher (you know who you are) I say: In my new role as Mental Health Tsar, I wish to be that person in your corner. I want to make your life easier, as well as make British school children happier, healthier and therefore more able to fulfil their potential. And under Nicky Morgan, I believe it could just happen.


I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked by teachers for specific, simple self-esteem and mental wellbeing exercises they can practice with their pupils, or for advice on how to respond when a pupil presents with an issue such as self-harm. In my initial four-point manifesto, my first priority is to provide thirty five simple exercises (one for each week of the school year) for form tutors to practice with their pupils in form time (a concept jointly created with Grace Barrett and Nadia Mendoza, co-members of the Self-Esteem Team).


I know what you are probably thinking: Won’t this add to teachers’ workload in an already woefully over-stuffed schedule? That’s certainly not my intention. I never cease to be amazed by the proportion of your average teacher’s day that is spent in tackling pastoral issues. Teachers are already dealing with mental health problems and most of them seem to feel as if they are doing this in the dark. Is that fair? Probably not, but it’s the reality we face – I’m simply trying to give the profession the tools it needs to wrestle that challenge with more confidence and efficiency. 


What about cuts to mental health services? I’m as angry about them as the next person. Anyone who’s ever seen me on Sky News knows how vocal I am in my opposition to cuts to public services. If I was Queen of Everything they would categorically not have happened. Unfortunately, I’m not (yet). What I am keen to note, however, is that the Department of Education has pledged £1.5 million to testing joint training schemes between schools and Child and Adult Mental Health Services, so that teachers have support from local qualified professionals and are more aware of where they can refer pupils, because even before the cuts there appeared to be some confusion over the processes and the available options. They’ve also dedicated £4.9 million commissioning the PSHE Association to provide step-by-step guidelines on teaching mental health. 


Personally, I do not think teachers are always best placed to actually teach lessons on mental health (although some do so magnificently), which is why I formed the Self-Esteem Team. I do, however, think mental wellbeing is something which is not only relevant to everyone (we all have a brain, after all) but needs to be consistently reinforced and that’s where teachers are the most valuable resource we have


The divisions that have arisen between teachers, parents and government over the past five years or more are completely understandable but not ideal. Having looked at the Department of Education’s plans, I believe there are common goals and that if we work together, we can provide a better and brighter future for a generation of British young people.


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