Eleanor Gilkison at XenZone visits schools, colleges, GPs and support groups on a mission to integrate online mental health support services into local communities. Here, she discusses mental health and wellbeing in schools, the importance of accessible support and the equal billing she believes emotional wellbeing should have alongside academic attainment.
What’s your impression of student wellbeing and the support given by schools?
School can be tough. For teachers and for students. This is what I hear, having visited countless different schools, given many assemblies and workshops and spoken to thousands of young people.
Teachers tell me they have a lot of balls to juggle and also need support. So sometimes a school can feel like a stressful place. It’s clear that support in the community needs to be more available; teachers are only too aware that school might be the only place a young person will ever have the chance to learn the critical skills they need to manage their wellbeing. They feel a pressure to ensure students are emotionally equipped to deal with life after school.
What I see within most schools is that every effort is made to make sure students can manage – and feel able to seek help if they need it. Most schools recognise that their students need to develop life skills, understand how to regulate their emotions, build resilience and know where they can reach out for support.
They know that good mental health and wellbeing will support students in learning and achieving their potential.
Should emotional education be seen as equal to academic attainment?
The more I see, the more I believe it. If students have a lot of ‘stuff’ going on at home or in their head, then that will take up their energy and time and not the learning they should be engaged in that day or that week. One is directly linked to the other.
If a young person knows where to go to help resolve a problem in a timely manner and they can do that, then they can stop it continuing or escalating and reduce the impact on their ability to learn. A lot of time when problems aren’t addressed; they will escalate. Sometimes students will reach out to their friends, who may try to be supportive – but who might offer unhelpful advice.
We need to make sure good advice and support is available from peers and professionals wherever a student is likely to find it.
What pressures do you see young people feeling in their adolescent school years?
Young people I see are at a key developmental ages and transitional points in their lives. They have so much going on: social situations to navigate; huge academic pressure; being a teenager and becoming young adults!
For a lot of young people, just being a teen is enough to warrant needing extra support. I have seen how the balance can be tipped quickly if support isn’t available.
How do young people experience school?
The feedback I get is that schools are incredibly busy. There’s so much going on, on a daily basis. Students have a lot to learn and need to move quickly from class to class. They are managing friendship issues and potentially hold a wide range of personal worries ranging from their changing sense of identity to developing self-awareness and having the confidence to reach out for personal support.
If they have a problem and ask for help, they often experience stigma from peers. While in a school counselling session, they can often hear people walking past and don’t feel able to open up.
Often they don’t have time in a busy day to ask for help at all as there are, commonly, no support workers available out of school hours.
Is there much disparity in how schools approach mental health?
Yes – knowledge and approach is different in different areas. Although there is a central drive for schools to be taking more responsibility for the mental health and wellbeing of students, it’s still a lottery as to whether there is a dedicated member of staff or any support available.
It’s great when I meet a member of staff in school who is interested and pro-active!
When you have someone in school who is really on board with wellbeing and mental health and sees it as the flip side to learning and achievement, it’s fantastic. On the other hand, some schools struggle to see themselves as part of the wider health care system and see recognition of that as opening the door to a mountain of paperwork and additional concerns. But, really they do need to be aware of the issues affecting students in their care.
Social media, for example, is always with young people – or most of them. A lot of time young people don’t have the skills to de-escalate situations that might blow up on a school WhatsApp group. This isn’t taught in all schools. Even in primary schools there is a focus on numeracy, literacy and achievement, but very little on self-awareness, emotional regulation and communication skills, or the skills you need to negotiate social relationships.
This has got to change if we’re serious about tackling the mental health crisis in our country. We need to get serious about offering help early and in educating children early to prevent issues arising or escalating.