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Mental health & well-being in Senior School & Sixth Form

Mental health & well-being in Senior School & Sixth Form

Mr Seidler, Deputy Head of Senior School reflects on the past year from a pastoral care perspective.

Had all things been equal ...

I would have written this article quite promptly after I was asked for it. It would have focused on how the mental health and well-being of girls at St Mary's is supported through tireless efforts of our pastoral team, and more than capably supported by our school chaplain and school counsellor.

I would have commented on how training in mental health first aid has been successfully completed by some Heads of Year, and that the plan is for others to complete this course in the near future. I would also have explained how in our work towards being accredited with the Wellbeing Award for Schools we have recorded a huge range of positive messaging about well-being given by both staff to students and students to their peers. 

But ... I was asked to write this article at the beginning of April, just as it was becoming clear that COVID-19 was going to cast a long shadow over the second half of this academic year, and this article was delayed by more immediate and pressing concerns. 

Where we are now

The last few weeks have been a time of anxiety and uncertainty on a scale I cannot remember experiencing before. The normal daily life of our girls has been disrupted beyond all recognition: they cannot come to school; they cannot meet up socially other than online; an entirely new way of approaching teaching and learning has had to be mastered.

Girls due to take public examinations this summer have seen the opportunity to prove their mettle snatched away from them. What social distancing will mean for how education is conducted in the future remains unclear. Many of these challenges leave teachers feeling similarly anxious as they work to ensure to the best of their ability the effective delivery of the curriculum and the appropriate progress of their students.

In their personal lives teachers also share many of the anxieties of parents about the economic implications of the current crisis and what this means for our way of life. Not surprisingly, an upsurge in mental health problems is widely predicted because coping with anxiety and uncertainty on this scale for a protracted period of time, is not conducive to peace of mind, even for the most resilient. 

How we are coping

Trying to maintain the familiar school routines during lockdown was a conscious decision to try to normalise - as far as possible - this difficult situation.

We felt it was very important for girls to see the friendly face of their teacher during a Teams lesson and we are exploring ways to facilitate interaction in lessons by using the chat function or creating breakout groups.

Noting feedback about the relentless nature of online learning we introduced a virtual lesson change over to give girls an opportunity to have a short break and talk to each other socially, much as they would do in the building when walking from one room to another. Tutor time and assemblies have carried on as normally as possible. All the support services I was planning to celebrate remain in place, albeit more remotely.

Although individuals in our school are physically isolated by lockdown, we have tried to make sure they are surrounded by a supportive and caring community online. They are not alone.  

The St Mary's difference

St Mary’s sets out its stall as a caring school that nurtures its students. Everything I have mentioned evidences this, but there is also an important underlying reason why we choose to do these things. 

One reading of the current situation is that our anxieties arise from the fear that the things we have worked so hard for – good examination results, a rewarding career, financial security and so on – risk being set at nought by a serious viral illness and the measures necessary to fight it. Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of the underlying message of the Catholic Christian ethos on which St Marys is founded which proposes that there are more enduring values around which life should be built.  

I would like to think it was this insight that the owner of our village shop was thinking of when he commented how much he liked life under lockdown. His customers, he said, are much more relaxed, had time to stop for a chat (at an appropriate distance, of course) and generally seemed to be happier and more cheerful. 

It may be that in pausing the frenetic life we have become so used to living in recent years we have come to appreciate once more some of the values that have rather slipped out of view in our previous headlong rush.  

Junior School pupil with rainbow heartBeing kind matters now, more than ever

It was for this reason, I was heartened by the decision to change the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week (28-22 May) from ‘Sleep’ to ‘Kindness’ in the light of lockdown.

Building on the idea that ‘doing good does you good’, the week focused on the idea of performing acts of random kindness. Girls were asked to reflect on times they experienced or performed acts of kindness and how that made them feel. They were encouraged to think about how helping other people creates a sense of belonging, reduces isolation and keeps their own problems in perspective. 

The second strand of Mental Health Awareness Week was the challenge to perform at least one act of random kindness each day. In accepting this challenge and being kind, the girls played an active part in making the world a better place because generosity of spirit makes a real difference to situations.  

The last couple of months has been very difficult and there is no reason to suppose that things are suddenly going to go back to the way they were before COVID-19. All of us at St Mary’s stand ready to support each other at this time and in the future. It doesn't take special skills or a huge amount of time and commitment. Being kind – being friendly, generous and considerate – is something we can all keep front and central no matter what our circumstances.  

Mr S Seidler

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