Well-being - more than a mere ‘bolt on’

Miss Aodain Fleming, Deputy Head: Pastoral, on schools' responsibility to develop mental well-being

Authors of the latest Mental Health and Well-being survey, which is conducted every seven years in the UK, have called for more research into the impact of social media on young people’s mental health. The survey results show a sharp increase in the number of young people with a ‘Common Mental Disorder’ (CMD) and notes this is “the first cohort to come of age in the context of social media”. The report also highlights that young women are “at highest mental health risk”.

Instead of being defensive about this topic, girls' schools need to be national leaders, putting well-being at the centre of daily life – through the pastoral care system, including nurses, chaplaincy, and counselling provision, to opportunities across the curriculum spectrum to be curious, inspired, challenged, and proud – and not just as a bolt on via occasional, cursory PHSE lessons.

In response to the survey Stephen Buckley, of Mind, said: "Young people are coming of working age in times of economic uncertainty, they're more likely to experience issues associated with debt, unemployment and poverty, and they are up against increasing social and environmental pressures, all of which affect well-being.”

At St Mary’s School, Cambridge we take seriously our responsibility to safeguard our students – prioritising the girls’ safety and mental well-being above everything else. Prevention – doing what we can to prevent occurrences of mental ill-health arising – is also key, as cures are not guaranteed, and intervention is only effective in 50 percent of cases. All children – all people – have a mental health that needs sustaining, just as we sustain physical health, and educators should work with parents to strike an effective balance of both physical and mental health.

An enormous part of people having a positive sense of well-being arises from believing your opinions are valued. This can be on a global or national level, for instance being able to vote in events like the EU Referendum, or this can be on a local, family or peer to peer level, such as being able to affect change in your workplace or school, having your petitions heard fairly at home, or feeling like the decisions made in friendship groups are democratic.

Through our School Council system we offer students the opportunity to be heard, and for democratic decisions to be made. We support students as they pursue their ambitions – from working for justice in an area they are passionate about, or training to compete in sporting events, and performing in productions, to taking part in entrepreneurial challenges – so that they have the opportunity to be recognised, and valued, for their passions and talents.

Positive role models also play an invaluable part in well-being by inspiring young people to pursue their dreams and ambitions. Thankfully we are often now inundated with examples of positive female role models who show that gender should not in any way restrict ambition: we have a female Prime Minister and presidential candidate; female Olympians and Paralympians over the summer impressed us all, for instance Jessica Ennis-Hill and Sarah Storey; and the female astronauts and microbiologists – of which Kathleen Rubins, who became the 60th woman in space this summer, is both – continue to inspire. 

The flip side of celebrating such successes, though, is that, especially with the prevalence of social media and celebrity culture, there is often a false impression of perfection attributed to many of these role models. Social media accounts are tinkered with until they present the perfected persona, often making it appear that these extraordinary feats were easily achieved, or that these individuals were perhaps simply destined for greatness. It can be easy for any of us to feel inferior in comparison to the accomplishments of others as presented online – from the appearance of perfect relationships, to achievements or promotions at work, or sporting prowess – but this is especially true for teenagers who are still working out who they want to be. However great our achievements or however fortunate we may be, we have all encountered hurdles, struggles, and even failure of some kind.

Part of our job in school is to provide the girls with extraordinary role models, and to equip them to achieve their ambitions – but it is also our responsibility to prepare them for the unpredictable nature of adulthood.

As you will have already learned, the second of the two 12 Characteristics of a Mary Ward School that we are focusing on this year is ‘Coping effectively with failure’. Part of this involves helping the girls to work out for themselves what success and failure look like to them. The range of role models mentioned above clearly illustrates that success is different for everyone – it’s not about everyone fitting into one mould, nor about being good at everything. It is important that the girls understand that they must work out what their own values, passions and talents are for themselves, whether they are different to their friends’ and to what they see on social media.

Families need to show, time and again, that children are loved for who they are and not what they achieve, or how they are perceived by others. We recently supported our parents by inviting 'parenting guru' Judy Reith in to school to run a 21st century parenting session - and we have also promoted additional parenting talks in recent newsletters. It’s important to be calm and enable children to make mistakes – and to let them resolve these themselves, enabling them to practise the habit of coping with ‘failure’. Parents need to provide enough space for children to be their best, on their own, but parents also need to demonstrate care and supervision of their children, and an interest in what they have to say. Take the time to know what matters in your child's world; new platforms and apps and personal electronic devices are like second skins to the under 18s of today, and adults need to be able to navigate these confidently, yet also remembering to be the adult in the relationship and demonstrating safe online behaviours. 

It’s also essential that schools maintain an understanding of the different pressures that students are under; whether from family, friends and society in general, or even (and especially) the pressures that schools themselves create. We need to provide clear guidelines for behaviour and expectations, so that boundaries are known, because children thrive in the security of knowing that adults care enough to limit them when necessary. Having strong pastoral support structures in place with a range of staff members who will listen is essential, as is having fun, being able to find quiet and time to simply 'be'. Young people need support in navigating all sorts of relationships, and schools should be able to provide support when necessary, and especially reconciliation opportunities for friendships at school when things may have gone wrong.

At a time when we are, as a nation, failing to cope with supporting our young people I am disappointed with the government’s ‘severe cutbacks’ to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). The first appointed Mental Health Champion for UK Schools, Natasha Devon, was also dropped earlier this year, having raised concerns that schools will be left without funding, and with a culture that will lead to mental ill-health becoming increasingly stigmatised; if Ofsted begins to judge schools’ occurrences of mental ill-health, they may be tempted to hide occurrences rather than deal with them openly. Instead of cutbacks and new regulations, the government should be prioritising investing in children’s’ mental wellbeing from an early age, in order to instil in them a sense of self-worth and resilience that will remain with them throughout their secondary school and university education and into adulthood.