In advance of her session at The Schools & Academies Show, we sat down with Natasha Devon MBE, to get the inside track on mental health and wellbeing in schools.
You are a consummate advocate for positive mental health. What motivates you in your work?
I was ten when I had what I now realise was my first panic attack. Our cultural understanding of mental health was very different, back then, so I was misdiagnosed with asthma. I didn’t receive the correct diagnosis of an anxiety disorder until I was 31. During the intervening 21 years I developed some truly terrible coping mechanisms for anxiety, including an eating disorder which robbed me of my late teens and early twenties.
After recovering from bulimia aged 25, I started to think about the way we are taught about mental health. It’s getting better now, but it used to be that most people only thought about mental health in terms of mental illness and believed it only applied to them once they had started to exhibit symptoms. Mental health education was all about awareness raising on specific conditions.
My starting point for creating the lessons I now take into schools and colleges all over the country was to survey 500 teenagers and ask what they wish they had been taught as part of the PHSE. The answers which came back were related to mental health, but they wouldn’t be classified as mental illness – Things like body image, academic anxiety, bullying and self-harm.
Ultimately, my aim is to make people understand mental health in the same way as we do physical health. We all have a mind and therefore mental health which will, to a degree, fluctuate throughout our lives.
What are the 3 biggest obstacles to good mental health and wellbeing in pupils?
i Lack of access to sport, art, music and drama.
The above are known to have a therapeutic value, no matter where you are on the mental health spectrum. They are confidence building, ways of expressing and exorcising difficult emotions and they produce endorphins, which help restore the body’s chemical balance after periods of anxiety or stress. Increasingly, these subjects have been defunded, devalued and squeezed out of the school week by policy makers.
ii Increased testing.
Exams are only one, fairly inadequate, way to measure intelligence and yet they have become more and more prevalent during my time working in education. More testing at primary level, SATs and the new GCSEs are all reasons children report feeling more anxiety. They also reduce self-esteem by giving the impression that people who don’t have good recall under exam conditions aren’t ‘clever’.
Austerity measures disproportionately impacted young people (they lost approximately 1/3 of their household incomes, compared with 55-70 year olds losing 1/10th). Currently, 4 million children live in poverty and half a million are reliant on food banks.
There is a direct link between poverty and mental ill health – It’s not that the more money you have the happier you are, but rather having enough money for basics and not having to worry about it is crucial for good mental health. Owing to CAMHS services being so stretched, children with less money are also less likely to be able to access help for mental health issues.
How can schools embed good wellbeing practice into their curriculum?
I’ve been challenging schools to reclaim physical activity and creativity in short chunks, at the beginning or end of a lesson. There are some great Youtube videos which are a five minute burst of exercise designed for classes to do together, without changing out of their uniform, for example. One school I visited gets their pupils to juggle for the last five minutes of every lesson – This is not only endorphin-producing, it gives pupils time to process what has been learned in the lesson.
What common pitfalls should schools be aware of when trying to improve mental health and wellbeing? How can they be avoided?
Demonising social media never ends well. There is no doubt smart phones have had a dramatic impact on the way young people speak, behave and communicate, but it’s here to stay now. Evidence shows children most at risk of addiction are those who either live in bohemian or neglectful houses where there are no rules at all, or in draconian ones who take a zero tolerance approach. The same can be said for social media and school. They need to be taught how to use their phones within healthy parameters.
What policy/s would you like to see implemented to improve children’s mental health and wellbeing?
I’d like to see PHSE properly funded and given specialist teachers, which would involve making it mandatory. I’d also recommend broadening out the curriculum to include more regular access to the subjects I mention above (sport, art, music drama).
Ultimately, however, the change required is more revolutionary than that. The whole curriculum needs overhauling. Teachers need more support from well funded and resourced CAMHS and social services.
It’s also crucial that we look after our teachers (not least because children are less likely to thrive in an environment where the adults around them are suffering). According to the BBC, 70% of teachers have taken time off work in the past year for a mental or physical health problem they attribute to the stress of their job. That’s unacceptable. My experience of working with the DfE is that they’re not particularly concerned about teacher wellbeing, which made me very angry – It should be their top priority.
Are there any particular mental health issues that you feel are not given enough attention?
It’s not so much the amount as the type of attention they receive. Take for example OCD. This illness was once brilliantly described to me as ‘a compulsion looking for a home’. It’s about mental distress – washing machine thoughts that loop in the head and torment the person experiencing them. Yet it’s so often presented through the prism of TV shows about people who like things clean. Eating disorders have a similar problem. They aren’t about weight. You can have a ‘healthy’ BMI and an anorexic mind.
Mental health is endlessly complex and nuanced and it’s a huge topic which takes time to understand fully. After all, we wouldn’t try to cover everything on physical health during one hour-long assembly on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.
Natasha will be discussing the state How we can Ensure Pupil Mental Wellbeing on the Hot Seat at 12:20 at the Schools and Academies Show Birmingham.