Many learners tell us mainstream school negatively affected their mental health and that they need more support now, writes Zoe Whitmore
Our education centres sadly reflect the national data on mental health, seeing increases in self-harm, suicide attempts and suicide ideation among our learners.
The mental health and wellbeing of our young people has never been more important. Now, one in six children aged five to 16 have been identified as having a mental health problem. The impact of the pandemic has only made these figures worse.
So the mental health of learners is a central thread in their learning journey within our centres. During their induction sessions we have one-to-one informal meetings to identify how we can support their needs and requirements.
Some of our learners have spoken about how they were placed in seclusion or isolation units because of their mental health issues in some school settings, sometimes caused by bullying or anxiety. This, then, excludes them from their peers, making them feel more alone and ostracised.
One of our learners said she feels “listened to by staff”, and that she feels safer and more content here rather than at home. So in my role I strive to maintain an inclusive environment across our centre, where everyone feels part of something positive and part of each other.
It’s helpful to learners to have regular and open discussions around mental health subjects so they can be comfortable and confident talking about their feelings and able to ask for support.
It’s helpful to have rooms that enable quieter spaces
It’s important to be part of a connected system of support, so it’s useful to work with local partners to deliver sessions supporting the development and wellbeing of our young people.
Local mental health services have exponentially growing waiting lists and treatment times for young people. So having extra sessions in our centres from these services is a vital part of the support we can offer.
Part of what I do as a mental health first aider in our centres is recognising the need to access more specialist help. We have a consultant mental health specialist, Dr Anna James, of March Training, working across our centres to deliver specialist early intervention support.
Recently, she has been teaching our learners “how to look after their brain”, in preparation for their upcoming exams, and to take away some mindful techniques for the future. Our learners enjoyed learning about how their brain functions and ways in which neuro-developmental disorders such as ADHD can affect learning, and overcoming barriers associated with this.
Another good tip is for staff and learners to use humour to keep a feeling of positivity and help people laugh through some of their darker times.
One of my learners recently told me that if their school had been more like us, their mental health would not have been so poor. They said they would not have become fixated on suicide ideations and suicide attempts.
Mainstream school negatively impacted this student so severely because of their ADHD. They were labelled as ‘naughty’ and pinpointed at every opportunity for having done something wrong, when this was not always the case.
It pays to work hard to build the relationship between teacher and learner, so that this person feels comfortable and accepted. This young person now has better attendance and rapport with staff because we treated them as an individual, showing understanding of the way they learn, and adapting to it.
It’s also helpful to learners to have rooms that enable quieter space for times of heightened anxiety or frustration, as well as sensory items to calm them.
Staff who are experienced in learner behaviours, additional support requirements and mental wellbeing results in group profiles being created to ensure that each learner is considered individually.
For me, it’s vital that we create a structure that encourages social contact, develops each learners’ sense of identity and achievement while building a resilience that will serve them in adulthood.