Education: Helping students look after their mental health

Education: Helping students look after their mental health

Alex Galbinski discovers how a pilot initiative to improve mental health provision in schools is helping students

Alex Galbinski is a Jewish News journalist

The 'heart space' reception area of the school hosts well-being activities for students
The 'heart space' reception area of the school hosts well-being activities for students

With statistics revealing three children in every classroom has a diagnosable mental health disorder, it is vital schools allow young people time and space to talk about their feelings, particularly surrounding stress and anxiety.

JCoSS is just one of the community’s schools that takes mental health very seriously, and it is nearing the end of a pilot ‘pop up’, Jami Head Room at JCoSS, to combat the stigma and discrimination around it. Sarah Manuel, a well-being facilitator appointed by Jewish mental health charity Jami, has been based at the school since last October. She runs sessions for students enabling them to learn about mental health, how to support their own well-being and integrate strategies to look after themselves.

Sessions via Head Room at JCoSS – which was set up by Liz Weddle, JCoSS deputy headteacher (pictured, below), and Philippa Carr, Jami’s education manager –  address a range of topics, including social media, friendships, communication and workload, and offers techniques to improve overall well-being including breathing and relaxation exercises.

“We create something away from the hustle and bustle of school life, and pupils can come whether or not they are stressed,” explains Sarah, who hopes these techniques will be acquired in times of calm and utilised in periods of stress.

JCoSS deputy headteacher Liz Weddle

Liz tells me well-being has always been a focus at the school, with staff looking at new and creative ways to address situations, particularly in financially difficult times.

“We were aware that over the past decade, mental health has become more of a focus in schools, but the provision outside  hasn’t really matched the demand. So we knew we needed to enhance what we were doing to be preventative, and give students strategies to use in times of stress rather than just be reactive.”

I ask Sarah what feeds students’ stress and anxiety, beyond general teenage concerns. “Primary stresses evolve from being constantly examined, which is a nationwide issue,” she says.

“There is also stress around the need to be perfect; young people struggle with the concepts of making mistakes or failing, which they feel they can’t do.” And, as parents reading this might expect, the online world has much to answer for.

“Social media presents a picture that is not necessarily true, but students strive to emulate whatever they’ve read or seen.”

But Sarah believes it is not all negative, and students can learn to manage their
online lives.

“It can be very detrimental and it’s a lot of pressure, but it can also be very positive when used in the right way,” she explains.

Society’s fast pace also impacts on young people, says Philippa. “We’re constantly bombarded by news and information, and our brains are trying to play catch up with the demands of the modern world. That’s no different for young people, who don’t
yet have an adult brain – so it places lots of pressures upon them when they’re trying
to grow up and develop their frame of reference and how they see and understand
the world.”

There are also more serious issues around self-harm, suicide ideation and eating disorders. Given these concerns, Philippa explains the reasons behind Jami’s
pilot scheme.

“Facilitating and supporting a school to develop in an emotionally healthy way and give space to young people to build their resilience is something we were really excited about doing.”

The lunchtime sessions are informal drop-ins, but Sarah also supports the school curriculum, in personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education classes, known as kvutzah in JCoSS. She has also helped Year 7s with social skills, building self-esteem, and being kind to others. Students have also discussed identity, how the world views them, and how they want to be perceived.

Sarah has run revision tips and stress management sessions for Year 9, thinking
about stress triggers and how to manage them and, for Year 11s, particularly the
maths students, she has talked through how to remain calm when thrown by an
exam question.

I ask Sarah where this fear of failing originates – is it via stereotypical pushy parents? “While there may be a bit of that, much of the pressure comes from the students. It’s important to have setbacks because you learn from them, and do better next time,” she counters, while Liz says parents need to help build resilience – but must start when their children are very young, “so that when things go wrong, as they inevitably do in everyone’s lives, they can bounce back”.

JCoSS students are supported with formal and informal sessions on well-being

Aside from Head Room, Jami has provided student sessions at JCoSS on stress management and provided mental health training for staff (as it does at other schools). It also facilitated training for parents on teenagers and mental health, and helped train a cohort of ‘peer listeners’ in Year 11.

“We’re trying to expand the ways we’re supporting students,” explains Liz. “They might not want to go to a member of staff, but to someone slightly older who knows what
to do and who to pass it on to. It’s about responding to children before an issue gets too serious.”

Parents, too, can help by being open, says Liz. “It’s about maintaining an environment where children can talk to parents about anything.”

She says the school will continue the lunchtime sessions and hopes to implement more well-being activities in its reception area known as the ‘heart space’.

“What I really want to do is break down the stigma that is still attached to mental health, so it equates with physical health and not reasoning one is more embarrassing than
the other.

“We want our students to thrive. It’s all very well having good exam results, but not
if you’re not happy. In education we’ve lost sight of that, and we need to get that balance back.”


read more: