Jewish campaigners and schools to take part in first ever mental health festival
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Jewish campaigners and schools to take part in first ever mental health festival

Dozens of communal primary and secondary schools will be involved in the 'Now & Beyond’ event, which will be co-hosted by Jewish mental health advocate Jonny Benjamin

Jonny Benjamin speaking to students at JFS
Jonny Benjamin speaking to students at JFS

Jewish children and parents are set to play their full part in the UK’s first ever mental health and wellbeing festival for schools on 3 February, with thousands of classrooms already signed up.

The ‘Now & Beyond’ festival is being held on Inside Out Day, on which schoolchildren across the country where their clothes inside out to show that how people feel on the inside can be different to what others see from the outside.

Dozens of Jewish primary and secondary schools are taking part in the one-day mental health bonanza, which is this year being held online due to the coronavirus pandemic. It has seen schools from as far away as Dubai ask to be involved.

The festival will include around 600 sessions for children, parents, and teachers, with others designed to help businesses get involved, with social media consultant and festival co-creator Louisa Rose adamant that it cannot come soon enough.

“The whole situation is so concerning at the moment,” she said. “I’m reading reports of five-year olds presenting with signs of anxiety. The 16-24 years age bracket is among the worst affected.”

According to the Children’s Society, three quarters of all young people do not get the mental health support they need, while the Prince’s Trust found that the number who say “life is not worth living” has doubled in recent years.

Co-hosting the festival is Jewish mental health advocate Jonny Benjamin, who will be speaking on the day, helping Rose coordinate the sessions, and launching a fund to give grants to help pay for schools’ mental health provision.

Jonny in a secondary school promoting a campaign to talk about mental health

“Too many young people are struggling in silence,” he said, addressing the effects of the pandemic. “Their mental health must be prioritised now more than ever.”

Among the sessions will be live webinars such as one specifically designed for teachers’ wellbeing scheduled for after-school, involving the Anna Freud Centre, as well as one for teenagers from Dr Alex George, and a session with the BBC’s Kate Silverton in conversation with child psychiatrist Dr Dickon Bevington at 8pm for parents.

Rose, originally from Scotland, who has suffered from severe depressive episodes in the past and said she expected mental health education in schools here to be “a given”, only to find that it was not.

She said the festival was “designed to provide support to schoolchildren and teachers at a time when mental wellbeing is at an all-time low”, adding that she personally knew from family and friends working in education how demoralised teachers were right now.

Jonny in a classroom of a primary school talking about mental health

“Many just aren’t prepared for this [home-learning]” she said. “Some are more tech-savvy than others. Some have difficult home circumstances, such as having children with additional needs. There’s all this additional stress they’re under that we don’t necessarily think of, but it’s taken its toll.”

A recent whole-community study by Education Support found that teachers’ stress levels from July to October rose from 62 percent to 84 percent, with the same study showing that less than one in five felt appreciated by the government.

“This isn’t one person feeling a bit left out, it’s a really serious issue,” said Rose. “We expect them to be robust enough to carry our children’s mental health and wellbeing through the pandemic but we’re not looking after theirs.” Likewise, with parents. “As a mum, I know happy mummy equals happy baby.”

Jewish primaries getting involved include Etz Chaim, Sacks Morasha, Hertsmere, Alma, Wolfson Hillel, Independent Jewish Primary and Calderwood Lodge near Glasgow, while Jewish secondaries include JFS, King David, Yavneh and JCoSS.

The sessions will be run by volunteers including almost 200 vetted and qualified child psychologists, educational psychiatrists, art therapists, counsellors, yoga instructors and mindfulness teachers. Many are drawn from the school’s local area to encourage long-term engagement.

Rose says they have been “overwhelmed by the response,” speaking as Boris Johnson prepared to put the country into another nationwide lockdown. How will things be different this time round?

Jonny Benjamin

“It’s the middle of winter,” says Benjamin. “The first was tough enough but it was the spring. Now, with it being so dark, I’m really worried about what it’s going to do to people’s mental health.

“I know so many people who are struggling with anxiety, some of them for the first time. This new variant is causing a kind of mass anxiety.”

Rose adds: “The capacity to cope or tolerate another lockdown has massively reduced. Initially it was something new, things like clapping for the NHS, people did that with zest and energy.

“That’s now totally waned. People are tired, drained emotionally. I can’t even describe how much more this festival is needed right now.”

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