It’s the start of the new school year, and pupils are understandably stressed about friendship squabbles and exams. But what happens when this becomes too much to deal with, and pupils begin to experience panic attacks or self-harm?
Tolworth Girls’ School started working with the NHS last year to identify where they needed to take action about their pupils’ mental health, sharing information with partners Tiffin Girls, the Hollyfield School, Grand Avenue, Christ Church, Dysart and Coombe Boys.
Headteacher Siobhán Lowe said Tolworth Girls used the slogan “resilience not reliance” to help students self-manage their mental health and reduce the number of pupils who will be moved to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
She said: “Obviously there are kids that we are not going to be able to do that with, but the whole project is designed on students developing strategies to cope with it themselves.”
“In secondary schools we’ve been talking about self harm, which is a major issue with girls in particular, and also anxiety, panic attacks and exam anxiety. What we’re saying to the girls is that it is absolutely fine to feel anxious, and it’s absolutely fine to have these attacks, but you’ve got to deal with them.
“So it’s simple stuff like an elastic band around your wrist. When you’re feeling anxious in the class you pluck your elastic band, so you’re able to stay in the class rather than taking yourself out of a class.
“In terms of self-harm, which we’ve been working on, instead of cutting, use a red pen. Because it’s the sign of the red which gives them the release that they need. So it’s all about strategies in the classroom to keep them in the class, and get them to deal with it rather than them coming out and not accessing education, and then it becoming a big thing.”
Mrs Lowe said recently she has seen a “huge increase” in issues around mental health at school, and blames social media for fuelling arguments.
“I think from talking to the students that we have here and talking to other schools, there is so much easy access to each other and information on mobile phones and online. There is a constant kind of measuring of yourself against others and people you don’t even know, like the bloggers and the instagrammers. I think that students do actually find that they’re never getting away from each other.
“They’re constantly on their phone and constantly talking to each other, saying ‘I didn’t get invited out, but she got invited out’. They’re constantly questioning each other, constantly going over and over stuff in their head, and their brains are frying. I do blame social media for that.”
Tolworth Girls has a ‘no-mobile-phone’ policy and encourages pupils to accept that it is normal for not everybody to like you, or not to get invited to things, and discuss issues with teachers or school’s four student support workers if they are struggling.
These support workers also run chill out clubs, as well as exam anxiety and friendship groups to help pupils manage problems that may affect their mental health.
Posters around the school also aim to engage teenagers by using the language they understand.
Mrs Lowe added: “There’s no point putting posters up saying ‘Have you got a mental health issue?’because they might not understand what that means. They might think ‘I’m low’, which is a word they use, or ‘I’m hyper’, so a company called Giraffe Insights has been coming in to create posters and support leaflets which uses the language of teenagers.
But the school is careful to emphasise that all teenagers will experience stress and anxiety at some point, and is working with parents to help them understand when normal teenage issues are becoming a problem.
“All teenagers will sometimes feel that they’re inadequate, that they’re not good enough, that they’re too fat or too thin, too tall or spotty,” said Mrs Lowe.
“What we’re saying to parents is that it’s absolutely fine to display all of these things, but it’s about if it’s ongoing. If they stop eating, and it’s ongoing. If it’s self harming, and it’s ongoing. If they’re displaying constant anxiety, and it’s ongoing. But at any one time a child may do any of these things that’s normal. But if it’s ongoing then we will speak to the parents. It’s about giving them the right route through.”
The school is currently developing a digital platform that will act as a gateway for parents and children to access support online from next year.
Speaking at Kingston’s Health and Wellbeing Board on Tuesday (September 3), Iona Lidington, director of public health in the borough said that children and young people and mental health are the borough’s two highest priority areas and that Kingston had been successful in securing funding for them through its partnership strategies.
Kingston College will also receive support to improve its mental health provision for students from January 2020.