Mental Health and Resilience – Part 2

The stark headlines that tell of rising suicide rates, mental health crises and an epidemic of hyper-anxiety are alarming. Educators across the UK have all embarked on a quest to find solutions. How can we make our children more able to cope, less prone to hyper-anxiety and more resilient to pressure?

The efforts we have made at Thorpe Hall have been recognised with several awards and shortlistings. So, what are we doing that is different and apparently effective?

When the Independent Schools Association awarded Thorpe Hall for Excellence and Innovation in Pupils’ Mental Health and Wellbeing it was for a long list of initiatives that the school had deployed. There has been a focus on food, sleep, healthy lifestyle choices, outdoor activities, re-connecting with nature, friendships, identity and mindfulness. Pupils report that they are happier in school and more able to cope than they were. Instances of attempted suicide have gone down, as have referrals to mental health professionals.

What does this all add up to? What makes Thorpe Hall a place where the mental health of every member of the school community is valued and nurtured?

Having a sense of belonging – belonging to a group, a community, a school, a club, a team, a family, is a vital part of feeling good about yourself. Feelings of isolation seem very often to go with episodes of low mood, poor motivation and disappointing life performance. If you feel you belong then you are halfway there.

The other half is feeling that you belong to something that is essentially a good thing to belong to. Thorpe Hall School is successful, it has record numbers of pupils, it has just built a magnificent and iconic building; the people who work and study here are proud to be associated with the school. The school’s success is largely based on that pride which motivates both pupils and teachers to do and be the best they can be. Success breeds pride, which breeds more success; it is a virtuous cycle.

We know that parental validation is a vital part of growing a healthy mindset in young children. We know that the lack of parental validation can be devastating and that many forms of poor mental health can arise from that. It is also true that, as children mature and grow through school, the validation they receive from their peers becomes more important than the validation they may receive from parents or teachers. Schools may like to think that coming to the stage to receive a certificate at the weekly Celebration Assembly is a good form of validation, but if you ask the children many of them would disagree. They like the awards and house/merits points remain desirable up until around the age of 14. But many children do not relish appearing before the whole school. They become anxious about what their friends think of them and how things might go wrong. Girls fear the isolation of being on the stage – even for those few seconds. Boys fear the potential for humiliation – what if they trip up, or the Headteacher asks them a question which they have to answer in front of the whole school. “How did it feel to get 100% in the test?” or, “What was the last thing you got a House Point for?”

Once we realise as adults that the validation we give, though always important, is not as significant as peer validation, we have to set about creating moral and ethical frameworks in school that mean that the children will validate each other willingly and frequently.

For girls that means evoking empathy around friendships and empowering them to resolve their issues for themselves. That enables them to fear isolation less and offer more unsolicited validation, which makes everyone happier. For instance:

Amy is alone at school today because her close friend Adele is off sick. Maya and Naomi invite her to hang out with them for the day. However, all three know that it will be important to help Adele when she returns to school to understand that her status as Amy’s friend hasn’t changed. Because the school has enabled the girls to understand the full range of emotional and practical dynamics that surround friendships, the girls know how to offer validation to each other without it becoming a source of conflict.

For boys that means guiding them in the critical choices they have to make in order to adopt a form of masculinity which is gentle, compassionate, supportive and kind. That prevents their banter from becoming too harsh and allows them to validate each other without fear of humiliation. For instance:

Because the school has taught boys to value compassion over competitiveness, sensitivity over being thick-skinned, gentleness over harshness, it is ok for Josh to congratulate Matthew for getting the top mark in the poetry task. Similarly, Simon puts his arm around Stan when Stan lets in a goal; Fin comforts Tom when he finds out that Tom’s dog has died.

The key, then, to supporting good mental health in schools is to create cultures of dignity and compassion that empower the pupils to look after each other.