6 February 2018

Children's Mental Health: It's never too early - or too late - to start talking

As an aspiring Primary Teacher and passionate Mental Health advocate, this week couldn't be closer to my heart. Moreover, coming just after #TimeToTalkDay it is a valuable opportunity to carry that message forward; silence is one of the greatest threats to young mental health, particularly if children don't feel safe enough to talk... and this is where WE come in.

There is never a 'wrong moment' to start the conversation. Whether it be feelings of isolation halfway through playmate, or thoughts of inadequacy at the end of a spelling test, we need to show Children that it's okay to say "I am not okay". All the 'A' grades in the world cannot compare to emotional literacy, yet when the bell rings the children walk straight into Maths. The clock starts and a paper puts their memory to the test. There's not a moment of mindfulness to spare. 

Certain 'traditionalists' out there will no doubt dismiss this as "hippy, new-age nonsense", or brand me part of the snowflake generation; for being too sensitive, or not being prepared for 'real life'. To them I say this: if older generations are the epitome of happiness, then perhaps there's an argument for your  "suck it up" and "get on with it" sentiments (credit to the delightful Daily Mail comments section). Quite possibly, your claim that "older generations had it tougher" is right... 

"It is never too early to start the conversation. 
It is is never the wrong moment to talk.
There is always time for an adult to listen."

Nevertheless, when you look at the facts - 1 in 4 people have a diagnosable mental health condition - it doesn't stack up. For all their cynicism towards the crisis in young mental health, they are ignoring the epidemic of their own. 1 in 4: The chatty barista serving you coffee, who hours earlier didn't know if he could cope with his shift. The young girl who ran past you in the park, seeming so bright and innocent, yet she was just excluded from a game and will cry when she gets home. 

She is smiling now, because that is what the world will see. She is smiling now, because she is too scared to talk; she doesn't feel able to talk; society says she shouldn't talk. Across all generations, something clearly isn't working. It hasn't worked for a long time and Not talking is NOT the answerIf we want better for future generations, we must break the glass ceiling of stigma and end this self-imposed silence.

And it is never too early to start. 75% of mental illnesses start in childhood, yet only a quarter of these are formally diagnosed and thousands of others children are left in the dark. At a time when they are still finding their feet in the world, they are deprived of a night light and any signpost to direct them. It is our responsibility to turn it on for them; to show them the words and give them the support they deserve.

When we talk about Children's Mental Health, the role of adults cannot be undervalued. Through writing mEnglish Literature dissertation: "Growing Down: Generational Empathy in the Works of Roald Dahl." I recognise the value of adult-child relationships more than ever. I was overjoyed to see The Duchess of Cambridge highlight this in her video for Place2BeI hope it will raise awareness moving forward. Only by empathising with younger generations, can we reverse the dangerous trend of "not seen, not heard" in young mental health.

"Talking" can seem unscientific and, in some cases, without a definitive outcome, but for children especially it makes all the difference. What they experience in those early years will shape their entire future, so we have a crucial role to play. If we keep writing the narrative of 'silence', it will become their normal - their story. Let's write a new chapter. Let's say "it's okay not to talk. It's okay to need help. It's okay not to be okay". More simply than that, even, letting every child know that it's okay to BE.

"If Children keep reading 
the story of 'silence', the 
Narrative will never change. 
We need to turn the page."

Previous readers of my blog will be very familiar with this topic, as being beeing became a bit of a Bumble & Be buzzword in 2017 (now try saying that ten times faster... It's all about the Bees.) So when I discovered the theme for CMH 2018 - Being Ourselves - I felt like Charlie Bucket on golden ticket day. As cheesy as it may sound, some things feel like they are "meant to be" and this theme is me in a knut-shell (obligatory-harry-potter-reference accomplished). 

2017 was the year I began a new chapter in recovery - CBT - and met 'Miss Harrison'. I recognised the true value of 'being' before 'doing' and it just clicked. I resolved to pursue Primary Teaching and, contrary to the myth of a 'backup career', it couldn't have felt more right. It wasn't a question of "what will I do?"; it was asking myself, on my own, "who am I?". 

*Spoiler Alert* the answer is not: Les Miserables, despite heavy plagiarism in the last sentence. That being said, my response was very 'John Val John', as I looked into my soul and scream-sang said: *insert name* I AM SOPHIE. I am Sophie, not the "perfectionist", the "journalist", the "writer", the "know-it-all Hermione" or "the one who dresses like Rachel Berry from Glee." Just Sophie - a clean page - waiting for me to write the next line.

When I sat in my PGCE interviews last month, I didn't speak with a script. I didn't revise, or memorise, as my child or teenage self would have done. I didn't try to be anything I wasn't, or trust in someone else's words to save me.  On reflection, it was the surest statement I've ever made that this is me. It will either be 'enough', or it won't, but at least I know it was true to me. Furthermore - and perhaps most important of all - I was true to all the 5, 6 and 7 year olds I met last year. 

I was true to my core value as a teacher: you are enough, simply by being you. Throughout the twelve weeks that I spent with a Year 1 class last term, I learnt more about my values than I did in twenty-years of formal 'education'. This is not in any way a dismissal of my own schooling, for which I am so grateful, but an endorsement of learning BEYOND a grade sheet. beyond A recognition that a young, innocent mind is one of the greatest gifts in our world and one we must protect at all costs. 

  • Dear Teachers: We need to show children that there is no guilt in emotion, no shame in imagination and so much to gain from staying true to you. If you had a difficult weekend, don't feel pressured to conceal this from your class. You don't have to go into detail, but simply by acknowledging it you are  saying "i'm only human and that's okay." I saw a teacher do as much last year and, hours later, the children presented her with a "hope you feel better soon" card.
  • Dear Public Health England & Jeremy Hunt: We don't need Change4Life and numeracy in calories. We need positive language towards eats. Food should be "nourishing", not "naughty". Let's "eat the rainbow", rather than "read the label".
  • Dear Damien Hinds (or whoever is Education secretary by the time you read this): Where are the lessons on wellbeing, or self-compassion? For all the hours spent studying Caecilius and Martella - which sounds like a Game of Thrones version of Nutella - I would have gained far more from discussing female role models like Luna Lovegood and Arya Stark(without the Assassins part, of course, but at least she dares to be different. 

I'm almost at the end of CBT and, as of today, have accepted my PGCE offer from The University of Cambridge *pause to let that sink in.... we could be here a while.* In my recent video for #TimeToTalk, I shared my interview experience and the decision to speak about my own mental health. In doing so, I hope to show others - and myself - that your mind is not a barrier and talking about it is not a weakness. We all have mental health and it plays an integral role in our lives.

So if we truly want EDUCATION FOR LIFE, we need a holistic approach and that starts with our youngest minds. It doesn't take a miracle and "we don't need magic", as the wise Jo Rowling once said. We need a new mindset, where the person comes before any paper-thin assessment.

"We carry all the power we need inside ourselves: 
We have the power to imagine better" 
     TIME TO READ      

The Five Things Every Kid Needs - The Huffington Post, Nadia Mendoza

Educating Children For Healthy Minds - Head Talks, Natasha Devon

     TIME TO WATCH     


What are your thoughts on emotional literacy? 

How do you envisage Mental Health in the curriculum? 

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