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Promoting positive mental health: 'It's life, Jim. But not as we know it.'

Head of Pupil Development Dr Preetpal Bachra discusses the School’s approach to its week-long focus on mental health and wellbeing, which started in recognition of World Mental Health Day on Saturday 10 October. Dr Bachra explains how the School’s creative installations aim to encourage pupils to listen, think and learn, and promote positive mental health among the Bryanston community…

‘It’s life, Jim. But not as we know it’ best describes the academic year so far. Many aspects of the School physically look the same although we now have one-way systems and ‘social bubbles’ in high risk areas such as classrooms, the dining hall and indoor social clubs. For any parent who has had to deal with multiple children (usually yours plus their friends), then the idiom of ‘herding cats’ is both relatable and understandable. Imagine that on a scale of 680+.

It needs patience and co-operation from the pupils and they generally understand the ‘bigger picture’ but there is an impact on them. We usually view things from a personal perspective, asking ourselves: ‘how does it affect me?’ Faced with a choice of strategies, the old economist’s trusty mantra of ‘opportunity cost’ or ‘what is the alternative?’ has led to debate on a national level. ‘Go to work, don’t go to work’ and ‘stay at home, don’t stay at home’ as the doctored comedy clips go.

It is an uncertain time and uncertainty can lead to anxiety. News stories vary and Denzel Washington offered a perspective on reading the news: “if you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read it, you’re misinformed.”  When we add to this the belief that children have, on the whole, an apparent greater immunity to Covid-19 then it is a very unsettling time for some pupils, and this can affect their mental health.

Mirrors

This week some of the senior pupils have worked on projects to raise awareness of mental health. The foundations were laid last year with some determined and passionate A2s who felt strongly about the topic. This year the focus has been on 'talking and listening’. A series of installations across the School, constructed by Mr Henshaw and the amazing Coade Hall team, have aimed to spark thinking, curiosity and openness to improving mental health, and to see mental health as being a ‘positive’ i.e. that we can take more responsibility for moving from struggling, to coping, to healthy.

  • Mirrors
  • May the Force be with you
  • The coke can choir
  • I had a black dog
  • Shine a light on it

The above are five of the installations that have been seen around school this week – and there is a message to each one. The mirrors installation in Main Hall challenged pupils to see themselves from all perspectives. This was replaced with lightsabres and Yoda suggesting that 'Sometimes you need to be rescued…. And sometimes you just need to rescue yourself’ – thought-provoking as negative mental health can be an issue for any of us at any time, but we need to develop the skills to look after ourselves and each other. This is drifting into the realm of counselling, but part of parenting is learning to counsel. Understanding this, we will be partnering with Alicia Drummond and Teentips to provide free access to their resources, courses and parent club. We are one of the first schools to come on board so this is a really exciting project.

Interestingly, the clear message this week from the pupils to each other is that they are not alone and that they should check on each other. Underpinning all of these projects, though, is creativity and thinking how we can pass on a message that teenagers will absorb. Anxiety cannot be dealt with in an instructional way – "you’ve got no reason to feel down" or "think of all the things you should be thankful for…" might be well meaning but rarely make a teenager think, "oh, of course, silly me being all self-absorbed." Equally, a forced focus on positivity or ‘toxic positivity’ as is now trending, can gloss over actually dealing with low mood.

Having fun and connecting are potential antidotes to negative mental health and can promote positive mental health too. The projects in school have been fun and this weekend’s installation is ‘NTF – Name that Film.’ When we watch films, we listen. We should do the same when someone is opening up to us too. I’d be surprised if the pupils can name the film this quote is taken from: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

But then children do surprise, even as they change over the years. Our circumstances change too. It’s a bit like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.

Shine a light on it
The coke can choir