This week is Children’s Mental Health Week, prompting us all to consider the mental health of our young people. The statistics are challenging. Over and above specifically identified conditions and behaviours, the proportion of 15/16 year olds reporting that they frequently feel anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years, with one in fifteen boys and one in five girls reporting such feelings according to a Nuffield Society report in 2012; the Royal College of Psychiatry reports that almost 300,000 young people in Britain have an anxiety disorder.
Various explanations for this growth have been suggested. I personally find the tendency of some social media platforms to focus on peer approval, by encouraging young people to measure their worth by the number of ‘likes’ or ‘followers’ they have accumulated, particularly pernicious at a time when such approval is of paramount importance to them. It is also true that our education system, with its repeated public examinations at 16+, 17+ and 18+, has done little to ease pressure on our young people; it is to be hoped that the demise of AS Level examinations may reduce some of it.
However, the issue for us at Dame Allan's Schools is not so much why these pressures exist as how we deal with them. In that regard, last year’s whole school target of developing resilience – that quality of keeping going when things are difficult - was vital. Allowing our pupils to accept that failure is as much a part of life as success and that what really matters is that we deal with such failure and move on, is an important part of our educational mission; what matters is not so much what one achieves as how hard one works to achieve it. In that respect, the recently introduced endeavour awards are an important part of our building, recognising and celebrating the resilience of our young people. Offering a wide range of activities in school is also essential. It not only allows every-one the chance to develop their talents and succeed in some area of school life but also provides an opportunity to escape pressures and anxieties that may exist elsewhere.
And when resilience is put to the test, it is our duty to provide support systems. The school counselling service at Dame Allan’s is long established and existed well before the current (and very appropriate) debate about child mental health took hold. Our counsellor provides excellent support for vulnerable young people as has our school nurse – both playing vital roles at a time when cash strapped NHS services for mental health struggle to meet the growing demand from young people. Equally well established is our listening skills course, which provides Sixth Form pupils with appropriate skills to interact with, mentor and guide younger pupils. We model good and supportive behaviour at all levels. Encouraging kindness and good manners helps us to create the civilised community spirit which our pupils highlighted as the strongest feature of the Schools in their recent survey.
Our pupils are also invited to ponder the ultimate antidote to anxiety and depression lying in the love of a God whose grace forgives us any failures or weaknesses and whose love allows us to combat any anxiety or depression. By bringing a spiritual focus to our mission alongside intellectual and physical well-being, we offer all our pupils – of whatever faith or none – the opportunity to look beyond a potentially anxiety making world of targets and achievement and focus instead on the greater things of life beyond the material trappings of success and, in so doing, bring a perspective that may help further to allay anxieties and depression.
By Dr John Hind – Dame Allan’s Schools