Sheffield Telegraph roundtable: 'Young people need an open approach to mental health'

(L-R) Dom Dawkins, Cathy Walker, Dougal Partington and Steve Rippon. Picture: Marisa Cashill
(L-R) Dom Dawkins, Cathy Walker, Dougal Partington and Steve Rippon. Picture: Marisa Cashill

Providing pupils with an environment in which they feel able to talk about their mental health is essential to both their wellbeing and their ability to learn.

That was one of the key messages from a productive Sheffield Telegraph round table attended by representatives from four Sheffield schools to discuss adolescent mental health and what is, and should be, done to ensure pupils are given as much support as possible.

According to charity Young Minds, one in 10 children, so roughly three children in every classroom, have a diagnosable mental health condition, and half of mental health problems manifest themselves by the age of 14.

And while the issue of mental health difficulties in adults, something that affects 25 per cent of the population, is finally being brought to the fore, the same sadly cannot be said for awareness of the issue among children and young people.

This is why the Sheffield Telegraph has launched a campaign to create awareness of the prevalence of mental health issues among young people and also to see how we can put the position we have the privilege of holding within the community to good use and help Sheffield’s children and young people.

We have held roundtables on the issue with representatives from charities and organisations and with Sheffield teenagers and now we have spoken to senior staff at some of the city’s schools to get their view.

Fir Vale School assistant headteacher Dougal Partington said his school uses something called a ‘flagging’ system to monitor the behaviour and emotional wellbeing of their pupils, adding that staff try to dig a bit deeper when looking at why a child may not be performing well.

“The flagging system shows what level of emotional arousal a pupil might be coming into school with,” said Mr Partington.

“Recognising when a pupil might not be at their best, and trying to avoid confrontation can be important. Maybe ask if they’re tired, or having a bad day instead.”

Dom Dawkins, the Healthy Minds link at Fir Vale, said he noticed support staff at Fir Vale often had a good relationship with pupils but said teachers often found it more difficult to foster those sort of connections with pupils because support staff are likely to have a more consistent relationship with students during their time at school.

“It’s about developing a system which allows teachers to build up a better picture of who the pupil really is and of everything that might be going on with them,” he added.

Dougal said it was important that when addressing a pupil’s emotional or behavioural problems to view the school, the pupil and their parent as one ‘unit’ that needs to work together to improve things and move forward.

Tapton School assistant headteacher Steve Rippon talked about the importance of prevention and addressing mental health difficulties early on.

He said: “Prevention is the key. If you can help young people early on, it can hopefully impact positively on their adult lives too.”

Steve added: “We’ve been working with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services since 2016, and since then we’ve done quite a lot in schools to raise awareness of mental health problems. It’s part of the curriculum for our PSHE – Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education – lessons. As well as the mental health of pupils, we also try to support staff and pupils too.”

Andree Reed, assistant headteacher at Sheffield Girls High School, and Cathy Walker, director of sixth form at Sheffield Girls High School, said fostering an environment in which pupils feel able to communicate is vital.

Andree said: “Showing you’re a talking, listening school is so important. We all know about mental health awareness week, and other projects, but it’s about keeping that going all year round.”

Cathy also agreed prevention was key to providing pupils with the best possible opportunity to cope with mental health difficulties.

“It’s about getting pupils into the habit of talking.

“It’s about getting into good mental health habits early on, and learning that the other side of a happy, engaging life is that things won’t always be great, and you will need to be resilient sometimes,” said Cathy.

She added: “It’s important to differentiate, and understand, that the way you’re feeling might not be depression, it might be a low mood. Sometimes with the way mental health is perceived, people expect to have these spikes of very up or very down moods and sometimes it’ll be less sensational than that and sometimes good mental health will mean you just feel average.”

Paul Stockley, headteacher of Bradway Primary, said helping children with their mental health needs to start young.

He said: “We’ve put a real emphasis on being a caring school, of feeling, caring, showing every child matters. It’s also about working with families, because you might be doing everything you can to provide a child with a safe environment but they might be going back to a home where a parent is struggling with their mental health and they won’t have sufficient support.”

All of the school staff agreed social media, and the way in which children and young people perceive themselves, others and what happiness should look like has a big impact on mental health.

Steve said: “We encourage parents to put their phones away when they’re downstairs to encourage their children to do the same and get some real quality time together.”

Dougal added: “With social media, it no longer seems to be okay to be a bit different, to have mental health issues or to have things that have gone wrong. And do we really allow things to go wrong anymore, or are we always looking to fix them? Sometimes it’s enough to acknowledge that something has gone wrong and for that to be okay.”

It was also agreed that good physical and mental health is key to a pupil doing their best at school, with many of the school staff saying that their pupils complained of not getting enough sleep.

- The Sheffield Telegraph wants to continue to collaborate with schools, charities, organisations and young people as we work on this campaign. Your input on this is essential to us getting it right. If you would like to get involved with the campaign, please call me on: 0114 252 1209 or email: sarah.marshall@jpress.co.uk