Last week, in a speech at the Charity Commission, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a new approach to tackling mental health.
There is no denying that the speech was a breakthrough for mental health sufferers and activists – for the first time in history, the UK has a government seemingly committed to taking mental health seriously, to breaking the stigma and silence around the subject by bringing it the forefront of public discourse.
However, scepticism has been aroused – political rhetoric is, after all, no substitute for concrete action.
We interviewed John Tomsett, headteacher at Huntington School in York and user of TheSchoolBus.
He writes a blog called ‘This much I know…’ and is a co-founder of the Headteacher’s Roundtable Think Tank. His first book is called, ‘Love Over Fear, this much I know about growing truly great teaching’. And he has just finished his second book called, ‘Mind Over Matter, this much I know about improving mental health in our schools’─ he remains resolutely wedded to helping colleagues improve their teaching.
John offered us some insight and advice on improving mental health in schools:
TheSchoolBus: What are some simple, cost-effective measures that schools can put in place to support our young people?
John: We have a physical health and a mental health, and being cognisant of this much-ignored fact is an important step in supporting pupils. On the front line, we have decided that every single adult at Huntington school needs to be professionally trained in supporting the mental health of our children. Not that every colleague needs to be a trained counsellor; rather, every single one of us should be able to have a guided conversation with pupils which enables each pupil to discuss their feelings. Often, that is all a young person needs.
We just need to be more curious. We need to know our pupils a little bit better. Such early intervention mental health first aid is crucial to preventing pupils’ mental health problems from escalating. The aggregation of the marginal gains of each and every adult’s enhanced ability to relate more effectively to the children in their care will go a long way to remedying the mental health problems of our young people.
TheSchoolBus: How can a school create a culture where young people can understand their own minds?
John: We have a Year 10 Philosophy course for one hour a week for the whole year. We wanted to create a course that met some of the challenges of our time that people face, in terms of mental health and wellbeing, that brought in lots of philosophy. We wanted to think about how to live well and find happiness or meaning. We cover a lot of ancient Greek topics because that’s when philosophy was more of practical subject rather than an academic, abstract subject.
People like Socrates, they weren’t in institutions, they didn’t write things down, they came from humble backgrounds, just talking to people in the streets. The Stoics, again, met in public places – they weren’t talking about abstract concepts like nothingness; they were asking how should we cope with suffering? What is the point of life? How do we live well? How do we cope with anger? ‘On anger’, which was written by Seneca, was the first manual for anger management, and it comes from a philosopher.
We first start by exploring where we get meaning and values from. Where do all these beliefs about life, which are probably unconscious, come from? Socrates says there is a connection between your philosophy and your mental health, and a lot of the time we sleepwalk through life – we are not aware of our philosophy. We have all these values and beliefs that we are absorbing from society. So, we get the pupils looking at the values we are absorbing before we can then challenge these values.
We see what their philosophy is at the present time and then judge how it has changed over the duration of the course. By the end of the course, the pupils have a much better understanding of how they think, and they can consciously decide not to believe everything that they think.
TheSchoolBus: What can schools do to help remove the stigma attached to mental health?
John: For my latest book, I interviewed children’s mental health tsar Natasha Devon; writer, social critic and co-founder of the Body Gossip education programme and the Self-Esteem Team, which is designed to educate teenagers, teachers and parents about mental health and body image issues. This is an extract which suggests how we might remove the stigma attached to mental health:
“John: If you have one piece of advice for teachers, what would that be?
Natasha: I think it would be that everyone has a mental health. What the Youth Select Committee say in their report, which is one of the best things I have ever read, is that we would like our teachers to have it in the back of their minds at all times that we all have a mental health. That is all they wanted. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world like that, just in the same way as safeguarding or health and safety are always in the back of our minds when we are in a working environment? That would probably be my one message for teachers.
John: What about a message or a piece of advice for children?
Natasha: I think talking is essential. A lot of children seem to be under the impression that they are doing a good job of hiding the things they are struggling with, but their parents and teachers always know when something is wrong, even if they don’t know exactly what it is. There is nothing you can say that will make the situation any worse, so if you are talking then that is a good thing. But equally I would say, pick the right person to talk to and make sure it is somebody you can trust.”
TheSchoolBus: Finally, how can schools better work with parents to ensure they are doing everything for their children?
John: We will always have anxious parents who put pressure on our school, who will not be happy if we don’t put on the extra after-school lessons. Because the anxiety on children in schools is also being transferred on to parents and the fear that their children won’t achieve, they won’t get the grades, they won’t get to university or whatever. As soon as you have a system wrapped up in anxiety, it’s going to fail.
We have decided to not publish any academic targets for pupils and parents in lower school; instead, we just tell the young people to work as hard as they can.
I had a Year 7 parents’ evening with pupils I teach – they have done some brilliant work on Shakespeare, way beyond anything you might expect of them – and one mum said: “So what grade does it get?”
I said: “I’m not going to tell you because you don’t need to know it. You have spent all your child’s primary school years happy because your child has got a 5b, but it tells you nothing about what he can do in English and it is completely meaningless. You just need to know that your son is on target for doing well, and he is.”
We have to help parents keep things in perspective and for them to see how their children are more than just academic numbers.
In John’s latest book, ‘Mind Over Matter’, he addresses, with refreshing honesty, the growing problem of the mental health issues experienced by children and young people, offering up a plan for averting a mental health crisis in our schools. He interweaves his formative and professional experience with strategies for addressing pupils’ mental health issues and insights from his interviews with high profile thinkers on the subject including Professor Tanya Byron, Natasha Devon, Norman Lamb, Tom Bennett, Claire Fox and Dr Ken McLaughlin. The book is replete with truths about the state of children’s mental wellbeing, about creating a school culture where everyone can thrive and about living in the shadow of his mother’s manic depression. The book is available to pre-order from Amazon.
Download TheSchoolBus’s Managing Mental Health in Schools guidance, Counselling in Schools – 3 Minute Read and Introducing Yoga into Schools guidance, for tips and advice on how to promote positive mental health and wellbeing in your school, ensuring your most vulnerable pupils are looked after.
John Tomsett (2017) (Email communication regarding mental health in schools) [Personal communication: 11 January 2017]