This is a little bit of a cheat of a wellbeing wonder post, because the subject of it means that it will be short – but sweet, I hope.
Putting your tech away doesn’t need a grand gesture or to be for a long time (but the longer the better probably), but just connecting with the world and the people around us and focussing mindfully on where we are, rather than the information superhighway, does us all good sometimes.
So if you are reading this (and thank you!), put down your device, go and give someone a hug (anyone really but ideally someone you know) and have some tech-free time. It’s very good for your wellbeing.
Today’s wellbeing wonder of people is a very important one, especially given that loneliness is on the increase, particularly amongst older people and can be very detrimental to mental health.
Being around people who love and support you is important for many reasons, including good wellbeing. Positive relationships are one of the cornerstones of the PERMA model from Martin Seligman (the father of positive psychology). His research suggests that pain centres in the brain are activated when we are lonely and, being the strong social creatures that we are, we flourish when we have strong, positive connections with others.
Unfortunately, not all relationships are positive. There are manipulative and unhealthy relationships. There are unfortunately some people in the world who are critical, snarky and judgemental. Being around these types of people and the negative energy that they consistently give off can be very draining and it’s very hard to avoid getting dragged into their negative whirlpool. While it’s not always possible to rid them from your life completely, spending less time with this type of person and setting appropriate, healthy boundaries can be a great first step (though they may well complain about this too!).
Instead, cultivating healthy relationships with people who are more positive and energising to be with can really make a difference to your levels of happiness on a day to day basis. I’m not talking about people who are without the full range of emotions we all have as humans, and of course we all have our difficult and down days, but those authentic people who are genuinely supportive of you and your goals in life. They may well challenge you (and that’s a good thing), but it’s likely to be in helpful and encouraging ways rather than the negative naysayers, who are of course often hiding behind their own fears and projecting them on to you.
As you spend more time with positive people, of course you become more positive too and that’s when relationships of many types can truly flourish. Whether it’s a friendship, work, family or romantic relationship you can support each other in many different ways, whether it’s simply having a cracking good laugh, helping each other through a tricky time or working out how you will conquer the world.
It’s a very beautiful thing and a real wellbeing wonder.
Today’s wellbeing wonder is a big one for me and has definitely changed my life. Every morning the first thing I do is meditate. Just for 10-15 minutes and it’s the best habit I have.
It’s not woo-woo, it’s science – honest! There is much evidence that meditation can have a significant impact on stress levels and actually changes the brain. The silicon valley set (in my spiritual Californian home) are all over meditation, understanding the many benefits it brings to introvert technology types and driven founders alike. It has certainly helped me to feel calmer and deal with life’s ups and downs and the feelings of anxiety that arise during stressful times.
Meditation is ridiculously simple and very hard at the same time! It’s like trying to tame a cute little puppy. Sometimes the mind is willing to be still and do as you ask and then just when you think you are making great progress, it refuses to come when its called and is causing mayhem all over the place. But you learn that both are ok. It’s all part of the process, and, as with exercise, consistent persistence is the key. Some days are easier than others, but all days can be meditation days.
The easiest way is to download an app. I used headspace for a long time and it’s a really great way to learn the basics and beyond. There are 10 free sessions and then £45 (or less if you have a friend who uses it and can give you a code) buys you access to more meditation packs than you can shake a stick at. It’s a beautifully simple app and Andy Puddicombe, the co-founder talks you through it. His ted talk is worth a watch too about the benefits of mindful meditation. Highly recommended and the woo-woo factor of headspace is low 🙂
There is also the Calm app, which again offers some meditation for free and has a variety of music and backgrounds to choose from. Birdsong or a crackling fire anyone? It features a lovely, soft and gentle female voice guiding you through and offers a good variety of meditations to try. Woo-woo factor is low to medium
I’ve recently been using insight timer, which gives lots of flexibility for whether you want to have a guided meditation (and there are lots to choose from) or just meditate by yourself with some timing guidance. I like it, although the quality of the guided meditations does vary a little (and there’s something ironic about getting annoyed because the meditation you’re listening to is a bit rubbish!). Woo-woo factor is medium to high depending on your choice of meditation! 🙂
There are also plenty of free guided meditations on YouTube and podcasts, so there are plenty to try.
You can of course forget about having a guided meditation and just simply meditate. Focussing on your breath is a good place to start or you can try a mindful bodyscan like this one I made for Mind Moose last week. Plenty of folks reporting that they found it relaxing and so have their children, so worth a go if you’re feeling a bit stressed!
I would say that you need to give meditation a try for at least a couple of weeks or ideally a month to see how you feel at the end. In my opinion, it really is worth 10 minutes of your day and a real wellbeing wonder.
Sleep is one of those things that when you’re getting enough of it, you don’t even notice it, but when there’s an issue with it (as any new parent will tell you), it can dominate your life.
There seems to be a little bit of conflicting evidence about how much sleep you need…is it 8 hours or 10 hours or is Maggie Thatcher’s 4 hour’s enough for the macho ‘super busy’ amongst us? Well, it depends on you and by the time you reach a certain age, you know how much sleep you need to make you function properly. There is even some thought that women need more sleep owing to the complexity of our brains 😉
For me personally, sleep has magical restorative powers like nothing else and one of the reasons most of us feel so good on and after holidays is the extra sleep and rest we allow ourselves; like the little afternoon naps…
You either love it or hate it and I’m a lover of a little afternoon nap. Indeed, I’ve got a little sunny napping corner in my house where it’s perfect to curl up for a 20 minute afternoon nap, but not quite comfortable enough to go for an all out sleep.
There’s plenty of evidence that an afternoon nap of around 20 minutes is great for your productivity and learning capacity. Winston Churchill apparently had an afternoon nap every day during the war, so if it’s good enough for Winston…!
Unfortunately sometimes sleep becomes an issue and most of us have times where we are struggling with sleep. This can often be due to something stressful or worrying that’s happening in our lives and a changed sleep pattern is often one of the first signs something’s not quite right. You might struggle to get to sleep, or have a consistently disturbed sleep, wake up super early every day or indeed be sleeping far more than usual.
What’s worked for me at times like these is going back to sleep basics and trying to accept that it’s a phase that will most likely pass. And of course, trying to deal with whatever it is that is stressing or worrying you if the most helpful thing, though sometimes that’s easier said than done. So what are the basics of a good night’s sleep?
You can read yesterday’s ‘wellbeing wonder’ post about exercise here.
This week is once again mental health awareness week (where has the last year gone?!). Last year, I posted a post a day for mental health awareness week and this year I thought I would again.
This year’s focus is ‘survive or thrive’. It’s a really good choice of topic as for many people even without a recognisable mental health problem, they are simply surviving in their life, rather than truly thriving. Often this is due to stress – work, family, financial (or sometimes all three) and there are many people using self-medicating habits to just get through the day or week, rather than truly living a life they love.
Learning to thrive is the cornerstone of positive psychology and something I’ve really been focussing on my own life in the past year and a half. It’s not always been plain sailing but it always makes a difference when I refocus on the things that matter and get back to the ‘wellbeing wonders’ that have helped me to live a life I truly love and thrive. I thought it might be helpful to share them with you as a good reminder to us all!
We all know that exercise is good for us. There is overwhelming evidence that exercise has a positive impact not just on our bodies, but our minds too; the NHS recommends it for mild depression and research is showing that the benefits to a range of cognitive functions can be significant.
I’ve always thought I was fairly active (walking lots with the dogs and walking around school as a teacher), but to be honest I was kidding myself a bit really and it wasn’t until I really stepped it up that I noticed a huge difference in my wellbeing (both mental and physical).
I started going to the gym most days and, alongside walking in the fresh air (hint: getting outside is also a wellbeing wonder!), it’s now my go-to stress-busting activity and an everyday priority. I work, sleep and feel so much better after my morning exercise and generally go about my day with a spring in my step.
I definitely underestimated the impact until I had to take a break from it due to ill health and could feel myself less able to deal with the daily stresses of life. It felt so good to be back to the gym and I’ve recently taken up ‘running’ (the couch to 5k app is great if you are thinking of doing the same).
The sense of achievement you feel over time is also great for your wellbeing and of course there are the social benefits too; I’ve made some gorgeous friends at the gym and my new ‘running buddies’ are such a lovely, encouraging bunch.
So, my tip is to find something you love to do, and if you don’t know what that is, then try different things until you do!
Pancakes have long been a favourite breakfast in our house. Once the preserve of lazy weekends and holidays, they’re now a more regular feature.
I have one of these pancake makers and it is without doubt my favourite gadget (although my new found love of pressure washing means it’s no longer a one horse race!) and I don’t even bother putting it back in the cupboard anymore.
The types of pancakes I make these days has changed along with my eating habits. Gone are the french crepes (mine always slightly rubbery!) and the fluffy Scottish pancakes I ate bucketloads of as a child courtesy of my gran, and in are these healthier alternatives. I think they are pretty delicious and they are really easy to make. Once you have the basics you can try any combination of ingredients and flavours. The amounts given are approximate – I usually just chuck it all in, adjusting the amount of milk to get the right consistency.
Of course, the toppings you choose can influence how ‘healthy’ these pancakes are. My staple is berries and yoghurt, but you can add maple syrup or honey, bacon, peanut butter if you like. I almost always add a sprinkling of cinnamon t00 – it makes them taste sweeter I think without adding any sugar and cinnamon has been shown to possibly have some health benefits.
These are the ones that the rest of the family are most likely to eat happily. They’re a good transition from white flour/sugar etc to a healthier alternative. The ‘jam’ in this picture is made from frozen raspberries heated with a teaspoon of water and honey.
Why they are good for your brain (and body!)
Oats are full of great stuff, as I mentioned in the last ‘overnight oats’ post. Their magnesium in particular is great for your brain and has been shown to have a positive impact on symptoms of depression. They also contain plenty of fibre to prevent any peaks and troughs in your blood sugar levels, calcium, iron, phosphorus, folic acid.
Eggs are great for protein, so I usually add another egg than you might otherwise need. Combined with the oats above, they really will help to keep your blood sugar (and your mood) stable throughout the morning. Eggs are a ‘complete’ source of protein as they contain all eight essential amino acids that we need to get from our diet. They also contain B vitamins which can slow cognitive decline (especially when combined with Omega 3s – see the protein power pancakes below!) and selenium, low levels of which studies suggest may be associated with reduced cognitive function. They also pack in vitamins A, D, E and K and a host of minerals like zinc, iron and copper. So, eggs really are a great food to eat anytime!
About a cup’s worth of porridge oats
1 teaspoon baking powder
A glug of your choice of milk (if needed – I usually use almond, but whatever I have in the fridge)
coconut oil (if needed)
So these are a bit more hardcore, but still delicious I think! These are the pancakes I eat most often and they’re particularly great after I’ve been to the gym as they contain extra protein to help build my muscles! They are denser than the previous pancakes but so good for you!
Why they are good for your brain (and body!)
The base is the same as the pancakes above, so all the goodness still applies, but you get even more with these ones!
A mugful of oats
a tablespoon of ground flax seeds
1/2 scoop of hemp protein powder
1/2 scoop maca powder (optional)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 banana (optional)
A swig of milk (if needed)
coconut oil (if needed)
So these are pancakes use the basic mix but with a chocolatey twist. The cacao is not as sweet as cocoa powder and don’t expect them to taste of sugar-filled chocolate, but the raw form of cacao is bursting with health benefits. I love them with a load of berries, a drizzle of honey and yoghurt sprinkled with cinnamon.
Why they are good for your brain (and body!)
Cacao is the star of the show here (you get all the other benefits of the ingredients listed above plus this superpower!). It is a fantastic source of magnesium which promotes a healthy brain and nervous system. It also contains iron, potassium, copper, zinc, manganese and selenium. B1, 2, 3, 5, 9, C, E to name but a few! The famed flavonoids that cacao contains have shown promise in some studies of reducing the risk of alzheimer’s disease. Cacao also contains Phenylethylamine (PEA), though to be responsible for why we reach for chocolate to boost our mood (and possibly it’s association with love!). Studies have linked PEA to a decrease in depression and ADHD, so it’s no wonder these pancakes put me in a good mood in the morning! Even I find them a little bitter, so you may need to get out the maple syrup or honey for these ones !
1 mug of flour (you can use oats as above, or coconut or buckwheat or a combination)
1-2 tablespoons of cacao depending on how chocolatey you like them
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 banana (optional)
A swig of milk (you’ll need more if you use coconut flour)
coconut oil (maybe)
If you want to have extra fluff, you can separate the eggs, whisk up the egg whites and then fold them in at the end. I can rarely be bothered though!
So there you go, pancakes 3 different ways to get you going with pancake power! Do let me know if you try them and meanwhile I’m off to try to perfect my own matcha pancakes!
A few people have asked me to write some posts about food, so I thought I’d share a series of ideas for breakfasts as a start. I’ve been posting my breakfasts on Instagram too recently if you’re interested – I’m doing a little experiment to see if this makes me eat more mindfully as a recent study suggests!
I love having a good breakfast – it’s a great start to the day. The breakfasts I’ll share are all pretty quick and easy to prepare and, most importantly, are good for your brain (and body!). Good mood food at it’s best! First up today is one of my favourites for this time of the year; a super-quick summery delight that’s great on the go…
This is a lovely start to the day and particularly good if you know you’ll be in a rush in the morning but want something decent to fill you up, or take with you to work.
Getting your oats is very good for you! Oats are a slow-release carb and their soluble fibre helps prevent any peaks and troughs in blood sugar which can play havoc with your concentration, mood and energy levels. They also contain magnesium which has been shown to have a positive impact on symptoms of depression.
Chia seeds are a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids which play a vital role in brain function. They also contain protein, slow-release carbs and many vitamins and minerals (magnesium, zinc, iron to name 3) which are good for your brain. Flax seeds are also a rich source of those Omega-3s and some studies suggest may help to alleviate the symptoms of depression, so sprinkling some of these on is a good choice.
Sunflower and pumpkin seeds contain loads of vitamins and minerals that your brain and body love. Both are great sources of magnesium and sunflower seeds also contain vitamin E and selenium which studies suggest may help to prevent cognitive decline. Pumpkin seeds are high in zinc which is important for memory function and contain plenty of B vitamins and tryptophan, which is the precurser to the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin.
Coconut is very high in fibre, vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5 and B6 and multiple minerals including iron, selenium, calcium and magnesium. Adding some flesh (dessicated coconut in this case) and also the milk gives some really good health benefits and also makes these taste creamy and pretty darn delicious. If you don’t like it, just leave it out and use almond milk, or another milk of your choice instead.
Berries are great for adding sweetness and they are filled with antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals. Some studies suggest there are specific cognitive benefits of berries too, possibly preventing cognitive and motor decline related to age and this study found eating blueberries may reverse memory loss.
So, here’s how to make this great breakfast – it takes about 5 minutes in the evening.
1. Take a cereal bowl (or a jar if you need them on the move) and add some oats to the bottom of the bowl.
2. Then a mixture of seeds on top. I usually use some combination of chia seeds, desiccated coconut, ground flax seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds – whatever I have in my jars.
3. Add some cinnamon, whatever berries you have (I usually use a mix of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries), a good lug of coconut milk (or your choice). If you like, you could add a drizzle of honey or maple syrup too.
4. Give it all a stir, cover and leave in the fridge overnight.
5. In the morning all you need to do it take them out, put them in a posh glass dish if you like, add some more berries on the top if you like and a spoonful of bio yoghurt (I usually use homemade coconut) if you like. Seriously yum!
Tip: I often use frozen berries as they tend to be cheaper and last longer. Just stir them in and by morning they’ve defrosted to a delicious mush in your oats.
As I sit here looking out at my chickens sheltering from the pouring rain, I can’t help reminiscing about my recent gloriously relaxing holiday in the sunshine. Sigh!
Since coming home a couple of weeks ago I feel much more calm, relaxed and focussed than before I went. I can see things more clearly, am full of creative ideas and feel totally motivated to get cracking with them. It got me thinking about why holidays are so good for our minds…
Of course not all holidays involve sunshine, but let’s talk about those that do. There is evidence that sunshine is great for our brains in a couple of ways:
Working, washing, cooking, shopping, cleaning, dog walking, gardening…the list goes on for those of us who work, look after a home, bring up children, try to look after ourselves and nurture our relationships with our family and friends. It can be pretty exhausting by itself, but throw in some of life’s curveballs and a bit of extra pressure and it can easily to head in the direction of dangerous levels of stress.
Being on holiday allows us – if we’re lucky – to take a break from all the day-to-day chores and responsibilities – someone else makes all the food, cleans up after everyone and your main task is to spend time with the people you love, relax and have fun – total bliss! Which brings me to…
The airline safety announcement analogy is so very true and on holiday we can get more of a chance to actually do it. Those of us who are mums are so used to putting others first, but good holidays really do allow us to focus on a bit of ‘me time’ and recharge our batteries.
Of course, this does depend on the age of any children you have, who you’re on holiday with and what type of holiday you’re having ; however even just the fact that you don’t have to do any of the usual chores frees up SO much time for you to spend on things you would actually like to do – whatever they may be. Whether it’s a morning yoga session, a swim in the pool, a read of a good book or scuba diving, there just is so much more time in the day on holidays, and the chances are you can get some very good quality me time in there somehow.
(As an aside, if you have small children and they are stuck to you like a limpet for the whole holiday, do not fear, they will be teenagers soon enough and then they’re quite glad for you to have ‘me time’!)
Linked to this, is that holidays generally mean more relaxation – whatever that means to you personally. It may be lying on a sunbed for 2 weeks, or lots of activities every day, but relaxation is the order of the day and boy is it good for your mind – and body.
Holidays also remind us of the beauty of living life at a slow pace. Hours disappear messing about in the sand, sitting and chatting in a café or watching the sun go down is time well spent. We don’t hurry to get on with the next thing or worry about walking the dog, washing the dishes and finishing that presentation and what we’re not doing, we just enjoy the moment. Which of course is what mindfulness is all about and if the holiday forces align correctly, there are many beautiful mindful moments.
Such moments of course gives us the chance to clear the mind from daily ‘clutter’ and allow you to see things with a new perspective, perhaps reassessing aspects of your life, your values and your goals. Holidays give us time to reflect on who who we are and where we are going – and crucially whether this is the direction in which we’d like to keep travelling!
Coming up with creative solutions to niggling problems seems easier on holiday. This may be something to do with travelling to another land – Maddux and Galinsky’s studies found links between living abroad and increased creativity
Everyday life can chip away at family connections and spending quality time with the ones you love helps to reconnect on a deep level. Lehto, Choi, Lin and MacDermid found in their studies of 265 travellers that going on holiday as a family contributes positively to family connection, bonding, communication and feelings of belonging. This is really important for us all – and especially our children – to feel.
Finally, I am reminded about some of the cognitive benefits of being by the sea – covered more in my post on reasons from psychology that learning to surf rocked my world. Recent evidence suggests that being near large expanses of water is very good for the mind. So, even a trip to the seaside can be great for you if you can’t go on a full holiday.
So there you go, 8 reasons why holidays are good for your mind – which sound like 8 good reasons to book another holiday to me! And remember, holidays need not always be super luxurious to have all, or most of these benefits for your mind – it’s what works for you and your loved ones that’s important – and taking a well-earned break. Now, where did I put those travel guides…?
As anyone who’s been ‘hangry’ knows, food can really impact our mood. Numerous studies show that what we eat impacts directly our brain and our mood. The ‘Feeding Minds’ report from the Mental Health Foundation discusses mental health and nutrition in detail. It also highlights research showing the links between whole countries’ intake of certain foods and the population’s levels of depression and other mental health problems.
So, what should you eat to help yourself to stay mentally healthy? This could be a very short post! Essentially, it’s all about fresh, natural, healthy whole foods & ditching the white processed stuff, but here are 5 top good mood food tips to keep your brain (and body) working well:
This will help to keep your blood sugar levels steady (and avoid energy peaks and troughs and hangry feelings) and release energy slowly. Fresh vegetables are full of nutrients, fibre and have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.
Get it out of your head that fat is bad. The brain needs healthy fats to work well. So, out with the 1970s low fat (high sugar) diets and in with good fats, including oily fish, nuts and seeds (especially walnuts, almonds, pumpkin and sunflower seeds), avocados, eggs and live yoghurt.
So, good meal examples would be a tuna or salmon with loads of veg, avocado, seed sprinkles and an extra virgin olive oil dressing, or meatballs in a tomato sauce with vegetable noodles (spirulizers are great, or you can buy ready-made ones now).
I’ve already mentioned fish above, but it’s worth mentioning oily fish separately. As well as being a source of lean protein and very good for your heart, oily fish contains omega 3 fatty acids which are essential for brain function but can’t be made by our bodies. Diets featuring oily fish are thought to reduce levels of depression. So, making sure salmon, sardines, mackerel or fresh tuna feature regularly in your diet is worthwhile.
Example easy meals would be tinned sardines or mackerel on wholegrain toast or a tuna niscoise salad. If you don’t eat fish, then walnuts, pumpkin, chia and flax seeds are your friends (they are even if you do eat fish!).
But what about the mercury?
NHS guidance is now that most people can eat four portions of oily fish a week without a problem, but pregnat women should eat a maxiumum of two.
I never thought I would be the kind of person who ‘massages kale’ but hey, it turns out I am! Kale, spinach, broccoli and other leafy green veg is full of nutritional benefits and scientists have found that it can slow cognitive decline.
Much to my surprise I’ve found I genuinely love(!) a kale salad with roasted veg, hummous and a sprinkling of nuts or seeds on top. Delicously Ella shows you how to give kale a massage in this video…
Carbohydrates are not all bad, but we all know by now that simple, white carbs are no good for us. So forget about sugar, white rice and white bread and bring on the wholewheat, oats, brown rice, bulgar wheat, quinoa etc.
Easy swaps are brown rice in place of white and porridge or bircher muesli instead of sugar-filled breakfast cereals. Honey, maple syrup or medjool dates can be used instead of sugar to sweeten things if you have a sweet tooth (like me!).
Increasing levels of the trace mineral selenium has been shown to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety, although interestingly this study found that if selenium levels were too high that also lead to issues. Brazil nuts are the richest source, so one or two a day will increase selenium levels safely. Tuna fish, oysters, wholegrains, sunflower seeds and pork, beef, lamb and chicken are all other good sources of selenium.
So, there you go – 5 ways you can eat well to help your mood and your health generally. There are lots more I could include, but these 5 are a good starting point. Happy eating…I’m off to massage some kale 😉
PS – This Mind video is informative if you’d like to find out more about managing your mood with food.
I thought I’d mark mental health awareness week by writing a blog post a day on a mental health topic. First up, a blog about child mental health.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. Fredrick Douglass (1855)
The above quote illustrates perfectly why child mental health matters to us all. The first signs of mental illness are usually seen in childhood or adolescence, with nearly half of all lifetime cases of mental illness starting by the age of 14. Early intervention at this stage can prevent more serious adult mental health issues developing.
So, it was disappointing to hear last week that despite the government pledging £1.25 billion to improving child mental health, they’ve axed the recently appointed School’s Mental Health Champion Natasha Devon, due to her expressing her views that the over-reliance on assessment was damaging to children’s mental health.
At least Child mental health is being discussed with increasing frequency in the media; The Times has been running an influential campaign based around the recommendations made by Professor Tanya Bryon and National Mental Health Week is receiving high profile coverage. National projects like HeadStart, have the potential to improve our understanding, but just how bad is the situation around child mental health and does it matter?
As pointed out in this blog post, the existing statistics around child mental health are well out of date – the last National study was over 12 years ago. Indeed the top recommendation by Tanya Bryon’s report is that the government commission a new survey, which they consulted for earlier this year – it will make interesting reading.
The youth mental health charity Young Minds gives the following stats which are rather sobering:
So, while the claim that “3 children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder” is misleading – is should at least say that the total figure equates to around 3 children in every classroom, the general message is clear – more children than we may realise have a mental health problem and this is confirmed by anecdotal evidence from child mental health professionals.
While we all have mental health issues at times in our lives. It’s when they turn into mental health problems and disorders, that there is an issue. 75% of mental health problems in adult life (not including dementia) start by the age of 18. Early intervention when a mental health issue starts to show prevents the personal, social and economic issues that mental health problems in adults and as Prince Harry stated at the opening of the Invictus Games this week, many mental health issues get better simply by talking.
As a society, finally we are getting more aware of mental health issues in general and campaigns such as Time to Talk and The Heads Together campaign fronted by William, Kate and Harry show that we are willing to discuss mental health and working to end the stigma around it. It should be no different for children.
So we can argue about the current statistics, but it doesn’t really matter. If as adults we can help children and adolescents feel better about themselves and prevent their normal feelings turning into a more serious mental health problem, then we really should. And talking to them is a really good place to start.
The first (enlightened) school I worked at as a teacher and Head of Year had a very caring pastoral team in place who were given significant time to deal with the wide range of issues that arose. The vast majority of the issues were to do with how pupils felt about things that had happened to them and encouraging them to talk, really listening to them and helping them come up with some possible ways forward really did make a difference.
There was a clear system for escalating issues where further intervention was needed and a school counsellor was in place long before it became de-rigour. And yes, it was a happy school. Pupils knew that staff would take time to talk to them and help. I have no evidence, but equally have no doubt, that this made a difference to pupils’ mental health and well-being.
It came as a real shock to my system when I moved schools and the pastoral support, let alone pupils’ mental health, was far down the list of priorities. Pupils were definitely not encouraged to talk to staff (and many staff sadly liked it that way). It was like a totally different world and, despite the fact that it was a more affluent and ‘successful’ school, there was a lot more stress and unhappiness amongst pupils and staff. Funnily enough, I left teaching soon afterwards.
The whole school culture makes a difference and while teachers cannot be expected to be ‘mental health experts’, I’ll reiterate that many of the issues that children have can be helped simply by having someone listen to and talk to them. This is why schools are key as teachers are often seen as trusted adults and they do not have the same emotional ties as parents.
Such relationships are often easier to form in primary schools, perhaps as teachers develop deeper relationships with their pupils as they tend to see them every day, but all teachers have a role to play in simply being aware, noticing and raising possible concerns with more experienced or specialist colleagues. This article gives some excellent advice about talking to children about their feelings if you think there may be an issue.
It is important to note that most children will exhibit one or more of these symptoms at some point in their lives – it just means they may need someone to talk to rather than being too quick to label them as having a ‘mental health problem’. But having someone to refer them in school to is a good first step.
Giving some willing teachers in schools training in mental health, can help them to be more aware of mental health issues from a child’s perspective but also, and really just as importantly, recognise issues with their own or colleagues’ mental health…but that is another blog post
Courses such as the Mental Health First Aid training gives staff an overview of Mental Health issues and recommends steps they can take to promote mental well-being in their school. Staff who’ve had this training are then in a stronger position to help colleagues support students or to make referrals to professional services where necessary.
Sadly, in February the NAHT found that two thirds of primary schools could not deal with mental health issues in their pupils effectively, feeling they lacked the resources needed. It’s always been difficult to get CAHMS referrals or access to an educational psychologist and CAHMS services have lost out to austerity cuts, although some would argue that schools do now have greater freedom with how they spend their budget, so getting in an Ed Psych or a school counsellor more regularly can be done.
Organisations such as Place2Be provide counsellors in schools to help to deal with pupils needing professional intervention. The government has pledged that every school should have access to a counsellor and are running a pilot to improve school’s access to CAMHS.
Such services are vital to help those young people for whom talking and supportive relationships are not enough. There is of course an irony that the government has cut the funding for such services at the same time as it pledges support for child and adolescent mental health. This of course places more pressure elsewhere and sadly it’s children who have mental health problems that suffer most. However, making sure all children have someone to talk to about their worries and concerns can make a difference and prevent them from developing into more serious mental health problems. And that’s what the best schools do without even thinking.