A recent survey reporting a sharp rise in the number of young people referred by schools for mental health treatment saddened me but didn’t come as a huge surprise.
We have also experienced an increase in the number of pupils speaking to staff about feeling anxious. That in itself has not caused undue concern: recognising that anxiety is part of modern life is the first step towards dealing with it effectively, and our strong pastoral care structure is well equipped to meet the need.
What is behind this rise? One of the reasons put forward nationally is increasing awareness among teachers. In our school, I am pleased that the close pastoral relationship we foster with pupils means that they feel confident enough of teachers’ understanding and support to ask for help. The fact we’ve experienced an increase at exam time is fairly understandable; causes are often situational, like a family illness or bereavement.
Children aged around 13-14 are also prone to heightened anxiety, which often coincides with transition through adolescence, when hormonal changes are coupled with a preoccupation with self-identity.
Pastoral staff are trained in how to spot signs of mental health problems in young people and assess their wellbeing, then determine whether external help is required. I firmly believe that early intervention is the best way of preventing more serious problems.
Pastoral staff are also trained in how to reassure and calm an anxious child, how to listen non-judgmentally, and how to suggest self-help strategies. They help pupils find ways to ease their worries, to make them more resilient and get a sense of balance and proportion. This is helped by a varied curriculum, which promotes physical exercise, mentoring activities, music, art and drama.
Many studies have shown that a sense of wellbeing is improved by taking part in arts activities. At a time when arts subjects are being squeezed out of curriculums by a focus on traditional academic subjects, I’m delighted that our long-held belief in the value of creativity and innovation has resulted in our new £3m Art and Design Technology Centre, largely funded by the Pocklington School community.
Not only do the arts present an opportunity to change focus, but they give children and young people the chance to express themselves and explore their feelings and emotions. Sports, too, represent time to switch off from academic or life pressure pupils may feel. And all these subjects encourage us to collaborate and communicate.
Communication is the key to maintaining well-being. It doesn’t matter whether you’re four or 94, speaking to someone about concerns is the first, vitally important, step towards getting help. That’s why an ongoing three-way dialogue between pupils, teachers and home is the best way to help young people develop the resilience and resources to cope with life’s challenges.