Thinking about mental health

In-service training for Bedales staff, before this summer term started, was through a series of workshops on mental health. These sessions were enabled because a number of colleagues have been trained through Youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and were therefore able to lead sessions with about 16 fellow teachers. The sessions focussed on the basics: what is mental health? How do we recognise poor mental health vis-à-vis low mood? How do we handle everyday situations – in the classroom for example – when we need to adjust our response in light of an individual’s mental health?

These sessions were greatly appreciated and, like all the best training, were a combination of background theory, evidence and practical advice. There is something about training out of term time, which enables a more thoughtful and therefore useful response. The group I am in has a good, wide-ranging discussion about the various definitions of mental health we hear about – “emotional and spiritual resilience” begins one, which resonates, before it dilutes itself in looser comments about attitudes towards others, which have a slightly 1984 ring about them. How do you reach a definition of mental health that allows for the mystic, the monk, the pungent eccentric or the determined individualist?  (“Was Hamlet mad?” I was once asked at an interview. No time to debate that now, but do go and see the latest RSC production.) Anyway, we have a good debate and our awareness is sharpened as a result.

The seminar takes us into the particularities of adolescence, the importance of the engagement of the limbic “emotional brain”, the need for us as educators to have our students’ self-confidence and self-esteem fully engaged (oodles of dopamine as a result), so maximising a youngster’s  receptiveness to learn. We watch a cringe-worthy clip on how-not-to-do-it, but then, thinking back soberly on our own interactions realise that, yes, we might have at some point done something like that unwitting teacher who appeared to stigmatize depression.

Thinking more about what is going on in schools now, with regard to mental health, what we are witnessing is one of those seismic shifts in thinking: PSHE, born out of the need to educate children about HIV/AIDS in the mid-1980s; Child Protection was little known before the Children Act 1989; and Learning Support sprang up out of the growth of awareness of dyslexia in the late 1990s – and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

These are just some of the most prominent shifts in awareness that inform our awareness of what schools should be like – and how we should deal with our students on a day-to-day basis. Looking back to the early 1980s when I started out, we now have an immeasurably healthier and more intelligent starting point.