‘There is only one thing worse than saying the wrong thing, and that is saying nothing at all’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
A crucial role: SecEd’s Mental Health conference heard that due to how the limbic system – the brain’s emotional centre – works, if young people feel understood, have high self-esteem and confidence, they are better placed to face mental health challenges

Schools across the country have been challenged about the extent and quality of support that they offer to students with mental health challenges. Meanwhile, teachers have been urged to embrace their role in supporting pupils' mental health

Fears that there is too much “box-ticking” rather than genuine prioritisation of mental health were raised as part of a rallying cry to schools at SecEd and Headteacher Update’s Mental Health and Wellbeing in Schools conference.

The event took place in Birmingham on Friday (June 17) when colleagues from schools across the country came together to share best practice about mental health work in education.

Keynote speaker Dick Moore delivered a galvanising address at the event but warned that some schools needed to do more to genuinely prioritise mental health.

Mr Moore, a former teacher and headteacher of 23 years, lost one of his four sons Barney, who took his own life in 2011 after suffering from mental health problems.

He now works for the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity that aims to equip young people with the tools they need to overcome mental health challenges, and which offers schools free training.

Mr Moore said: “Where is your school when it comes to emotional and mental health? Is emotional wellbeing a priority? In my experience of going around schools, only rarely do I find that the priority is really a priority. (There is) too much box-ticking, not enough commitment or dynamic approaches to the problem.”

Mr Moore said a key issue for young people was a lack of opportunities to make mistakes, experience failure and build resilience. He pointed to statistics showing that while one in 10 secondary school students have a diagnosable mental health problem, this rises to one in six in further education. He asked: “What happens or does not happen between the time they go to school and leave for college?”

He put the problem down to the secondary school “safety net” disappearing and students not being ready to face the challenges of further and higher education alone.

Mr Moore said key skills that schools should prioritise during pupils’ education include self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

He continued: “The trouble is an awful lots of pupils, especially the more able, affluent and privileged, have never seen failure. We have to show them failure. We have to show young people that failure is inevitable at some point: driving tests, GCSEs, jobs, relationships.

“The best way that we learn (is) by making mistakes, getting things wrong – by being allowed to make mistakes. Schools and society are increasingly risk-averse; we are depriving young people of the best learning opportunities. Every little experience we have will affect who and what we are. That mixture will determine … how we deal with these dangers, these powerful emotions.”

It is now well-known that 75 per cent of all mental health difficulties originate during adolescence, including 50 per cent by the age of 15. Mr Moore also highlighted that 32 per cent of teenagers experience suicidal thoughts. Furthermore, more young men aged 17 to 35 kill themselves than die through AIDS, violent crime and road traffic accidents combined. Mr Moore added: “If this were a virus, the investment would be huge. It’s scandalous.”

One key, he added, was to show young people that these emotions do not last forever: “We need to build in a bit of thinking. We need to build in the ability to think things through; to show that these things are normal, they happen to us all. Emotions never stay forever.”

However, key barriers for schools, Mr Moore warned, include a lack of time and low staff confidence when it comes to discussing these issues. Too often teachers are afraid of “saying the wrong thing”.

He said: “What is the big thing that stops you listening? A shortage of time, a shortage of space, our own stress levels, a fear of having to act: what do I say, what do I do? A fear of getting it wrong or saying the wrong thing.”

However, Mr Moore encouraged delegates by drawing on the work of neurobiologist Dr Andrew Curran and discussing the role of dopamine, a neurochemical that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres and regulates emotional responses.
Dopamine increases notably when puberty begins meaning the brain becomes hyper-excitable. This is part of the reason that adolescents are particularly prone to mental health disorders.

However, in a video played to delegates, Dr Curran states: “Dopamine in the right concentrations and at the right time produces health in our brains. In a therapeutic situation, therefore, where you’re trying to support someone, and help them to feel capable and able of dealing with the situations that they are trying to make sense of, dopamine is your critical friend.

“If you can produce dopamine in the right concentration and the right places you have maximised that person’s ability to deal with whatever challenges or issues are facing them at that time.”

This is relevant because 93 per cent of dopamine secretion in the brain is controlled by the limbic system – the emotional control centre in the brain – something Mr Moore said that teachers were often ideally placed to influence.

Dr Curran continues: “If somebody is in an environment where they feel understood then that is good for their self-esteem. If those two things are true then that is good for their self-confidence. If those three things exist then they will feel emotionally engaged with the situation.

“If they feel emotionally engaged it means their limbic emotional brain is fully connected with what’s going on and if that’s the case then you have optimised their dopamine secretion, you have maximised their ability to not only deal with the situation in the present but also to learn or unlearn the things that they got wrong and the things they got right to give them strategies to move forward.

“If somebody’s in an environment or with someone where they feel genuine love, then their ability to deal with themselves and their lives is maximised.”

As such, Mr Moore urged delegates to have more confidence in their ability to support young people should they seek help by simply finding the time to listen.

“How good are you and your colleagues at listening without judging? Half of GPs have no specific training in mental health. I bet that most of you have more skills in listening to and reading a young person than 50 per cent of GPs.

“There is only one thing worse than saying the wrong thing, and that is saying nothing at all. If we are going to ask a young person how they are and if you get an answer, you (must) assess it and if it bothers you, (you must) act.”

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