I was browsing through BBC news a few days ago, when I came across the story of 16 year old George Hodgson. Despite suffering from extreme anxiety, OCD, panic attacks and even suicidal thoughts, like so many other children, George was placed on a waiting list to get the help needed, but was told that there was a 40-week wait for his treatment. He wasn’t contacted until two years later, just before the cut-off for adolescent care, as he was about to turn 18.
For many children and their families, George’s story is all too familiar. Desperate and helpless children, parents, teaching/support staff and health care professionals, faced with a total lack of support when they need it most.
And it’s getting worse. Childline released figures this month, showing that the number of children having therapy for anxiety has risen by 60% in two years. Alongside this, their figures show 13,746 sessions in 2016/17 for children suffering from anxiety, including more than 3,304 suffering panic attacks.
Clearly, there is a great deal of work to be done. Only yesterday, the UK government announced a new vision for Mental Health research, which certainly promises steps in the right direction. Will it be enough though? With less than 6% of overall health funding going into mental health research, this will be no easy task. It won’t be quick either.
As teachers, we care deeply for our students. It can be heartbreaking to meet distraught parents who tell you what they’re going through day after day; who see their child’s anxieties worsening, watch them withdrawing as their self-esteem falls, worry constantly of what might happen next. While we’re not social workers or psychologists, we are on the front-line working with children suffering from a range of mental health issues.
As our students are placed on a waiting line to get help and their parents turn to us for guidance, is there anything we can do?
I think there is.
We can talk about mindset, thoughts, body language and actions. We can teach students about mental health. We can set daily activities whereby children look for positives in their lives, themselves and others. We can create an ethos of kindness, acceptance and honesty within our classroom. We can encourage daily mindfulness. We can ask students to weigh up actual evidence to prove or disprove negative thoughts. We can promote the benefits of eating wholesome food and exercising. We can give out useful resources that parents might not have access to. We can build solid relationships with families, becoming a united front. We can listen. We can try.
Unsure you know how to help? Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS is one of many brilliant sites that you can use to familiarise yourself with a young person’s condition and what they may be going through. They have self-help leaflets covering a range of issues. For primary age children, I’ve printed copies for children to use with support staff or myself in school, and another copy for parents so that they can better support at home. My go-to resource for secondary students suffering with anxiety, has been this amazing Moodjuice anxiety workbook which you can discreetly print, enclose in an envelope and slip to them in class for them to work through at home. Depending on what pastoral provision your school has, and how willing the particular student is to talk, you may be able to arrange a more direct intervention in school.
Essentially, what I’m saying is that if you’d like to help your students but don’t know enough about the topic yourself, you can find a wealth of useful information by googling terms like ‘NHS Anxiety.’ As someone who has myself experienced anxiety and undergone cognitive behaviour therapy, I can attest to the quality of booklets like the ones above. The same information, ideas and activities really helped me to change my thoughts, beliefs and actions, resulting in a much happier person.
Again – we’re not trained health care professionals and I’m not naive enough to think that we can cure severe mental illness by asking students to write down positive thoughts. But for children who are perhaps beginning to show signs of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, whose only alternative is a waiting list, the interventions I’ve described above might just be the difference in a student worsening or getting better.
Luckily, for 18 year old George, his story had a happy ending despite the lack of support. Having made a full recovery, he now runs his own fashion brand which raises awareness of mental health issues. It’s a brilliant, inspirational story. It’s also rare.
As ‘Young Minds’ report as many as 1 in 6 young people experiencing anxiety at some point, this problem isn’t going anywhere. Alongside this, we live in an age of funding cuts – not only for schools, but also those same mental health services that the government have promised to ‘transform.’
Basically, we’re really up against it. All the more reason to put our creativity, resourcefulness and caring natures to good use.