Dr Emma Silver, Director of Wellbeing:
When our Head suggested that I “guest blog” as our School’s new Director of Wellbeing, I saw the opportunity to keep the conversation going after Mental Health Awareness Week (Monday 13 – Sunday 19 May). Then I realised that I’d never written a blog before, clinical reports and academic papers but not this. A feeling of dread arose in me, reminiscent of being back in school – a fear of being exposed. I didn’t want to experience that uncomfortable anxiety in my body, or attend to my intrusive negative thoughts, so I kept it all at bay with a large dose of avoidance. Procrastination. It’s the most time consuming activity around exam season for many pupils. It works well to keep that uneasy feeling under wraps but then it emerges, full force, as deadlines loom. This feeling of anxiety and the avoidance is a fairly normal experience. Although not a great way to manage my workload, it is not quite inefficient or stressful enough for me, or others around me, to change. It’s a fine line and, for some, this is a strategy that becomes a much bigger problem that grows, and significantly impacts on their wellbeing.
As a mental health professional, I have been wary of voyeuristic television programmes intruding into the lives of people struggling with mental health issues. This is partly due to the dubious ethics of some reality television, but also managing a work life balance to have some down time and switch off from work. However, last week, it was heartening to watch Nadia, Bake Off champion, bravely explore her anxiety, compassionately gain an understanding of how her childhood experiences impact on her daily life, and begin to challenge her usual coping strategies, that have paradoxically been part of her baking success. In my clinical practice, I often see how a young person’s inner struggles are masked by their academic success and a portrayed confidence, making it hard for them, and others, to notice or acknowledge when there are difficulties.
At Highgate, our Pupil Welfare Committee have been passionate about educating their peers, and staff, about teenage mental health. They are keen to create a context where their peers feel able to talk to each other and staff, and know how to access support. Last week they launched an information board on mental health, arranged for some Sixth Form volunteers to talk with lower years about their own ways of managing their struggles, and created a pupil survey. Working with such a thoughtful and compassionate group of pupils has been inspiring.
I have been impressed with how Highgate pupils support their friends in difficult times. It is hard for teenagers to know when their friend needs a bit more help. Can they trust the adults with the information? Can they manage the responsibility themselves? It’s a dilemma that we are often thinking about with pupils, hoping they feel that the adults they approach will take their concerns seriously. As a parent or a teacher, we tend to jump to solve our children’s problems, rather than listening carefully and allowing them to try out their solutions. Just as the teenager wonders if/when to ask for adult help, so at times the parents and teachers wonder how much to step back or step up. As adults, we can only be available to hear the child’s story, and acknowledge their feelings, if we are not too full up ourselves. I have used the analogy of the aeroplane safety briefing – you need to secure your own oxygen mask before attending to the child. Looking at whole school mental health, I am working alongside staff to develop strategies for their wellbeing, seeing what the evidence says, and building on ideas from Mental Health Awareness Week and other staff feedback. For myself, trying to practice what I preach, I’ll end my first ever blog, acknowledging that it’s probably ‘good enough’.