Head's Blog - What should we tell our children?
For all the progress that society has made in recent decades, we still have a long way to go when it comes to dealing with mental health. The fact that mental health concerns have increased as a result of the pandemic is not surprising; this predicament has brought isolation, illness and loss to us all. We were facing a looming mental health crisis before the world at large faced a calamity of its own – it’s hard to understand how we might now describe the challenges facing us.
Mental health is often at the centre of debate, with two sides pitted against one another. There are those who believe it is a tool being used to score points, while others fear that a focus on positive mental health is too easily ignored or belittled. It is a debate no one is above or excused from, as the events of recent weeks have demonstrated.
I believe that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with who is right or wrong in this ongoing discussion, but create a supportive environment where it is safe to speak out. Our young people should not need to fear that they will not be taken seriously if they raise concerns about their mental health or tell us they find it hard to articulate how they feel. At the same time, we need to help ensure that we do not create a culture of anxiety by talking of mental health only in negative terms.
Teachers and parents can be proactive in helping our students cope with the difficulties they face. Here are just a few ways how:
While maintaining appropriate boundaries, being honest about our own mental health can show young people that there is no need to be invincible. When the adults around them show unwavering resilience, it might become difficult for students to come forward or to admit a perceived weakness. Simply letting young people know it is OK not to be OK can be a powerful way of opening up conversation and ensuring they know there are people around that they can talk to, and who understand.
In a rush to get back to ‘normal’ – weekends filled with visits to shopping centres and restaurants, we may forget the oft-cited silver lining of the last 12 months – more time to spend with family. We should seek out ways to protect these special connections, as the rush to ‘catch-up’ in coming months, might feel overwhelming without this positive tether back to those closest to us.
While we’re all sick of screens and the hours we are tied to them at the moment, I think it is unlikely we will forgo them altogether as life returns to normal. While we should certainly recognise the benefit technology can bring, we must be honest about the downsides, and why limiting time online is sensible. Thinking about my own phone use in recent months, there is also a need for us to reflect on what we practice and what we ask of our students. Having planned time where all family members put their phones and tablets away, might be something we are more thoughtful about in the months ahead.
It has been a joy to see new habits and hobbies taken up during lockdown. As life becomes busier, some may find a permanent place in our lives, while others may fall by the wayside. Whether regular exercise, reading, baking or learning a new skill, considering which to focus on and which to gently let go means we can retain new skills and avoid the guilt and stress that comes from trying to take on too much. It’s also important to remember that simply getting through the isolation and added stress of multiple lockdowns is something to be proud of – there is no need to feel inadequate if new skills or hobbies did not make it onto your priority list amidst the uncertainty of the last year.
The headlines are filled with worry about the impact of falling behind in education, and the economic shocks that may lie ahead for this generation. We must involve young people in conversations surrounding what is most in need of ‘catching up’ and why, and not forget the importance of social interaction and engagement in life beyond the school walls. Let us help them feel a positive sense of purpose as they consider the years ahead.
If the mental health crisis we faced before coronavirus partly stemmed from the increasing expectations to achieve, creating a sense of panic around a need to catch up cannot end well. Young people have missed out on so much already; a fear of the consequences if they don’t race to do more now will only lead to greater loss.
There’s much talk of not returning to what we knew as normal, and instead creating a better post-pandemic society. Our students, this younger generation, is central to this. It is our duty to ensure that all students are prepared to step out into the wider world and properly involved in the conversations about the future they will shape.