NHSG - Head Girl, Isabelle, on why school is the best place to start conversations about mental health…

Head Girl, Isabelle, on why school is the best place to start conversations about mental health…

May 10, 2021

For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, we asked pupils, alumnae and staff to share their thoughts on mental wellbeing. In this article, current Head Girl, Isabelle, talks about why raising awareness in school is so important.

At NHSG I feel lucky that we’re able to have such open and honest conversations about mental health, and that we are proactively supported and encouraged to do so. However, it’s a sad fact of life that mental health stigma still exists, which is why talking more about mental health before we leave our supportive school environment is so important.

As Head Girl I’m part of a pupil leadership team that promotes mental health awareness to all girls across all years. We regularly consult with Mrs Franks-Doyle, Deputy Head Pastoral of Pastoral Care, and participate in assemblies and awareness events – including this week’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

So why the focus on mental health specifically?

Everybody has mental health just as everybody has physical health, and we all experience some sort of struggle at some point in our lives. Some might experience short term mental health problems relating to difficult life events – such as exam pressures or starting a new school, while others might have diagnosed mental health problems that need to be managed over a lifetime. Either way, it’s important to remember that nobody reacts in exactly the same way to these struggles or diagnoses, and signposting to specialist support is a great way to help.

Our approach to mental health awareness this year is more focused. Rather than considering mental health in its broadest sense, we are focusing in on some specific areas that we feel many of our peers will find relatable, as well as exploring some of the more common mental health problems.

Between Monday and Friday we’ll be holding events, talks and discussions on: female empowerment and sexual harassment; eating disorders; anxiety and depression; the perils of perfectionism; and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). We’ll launch the week with an assembly to let everyone know what we’ve got planned, and this will be followed later in the week with talks from alumnae, our school nurse and other health professionals. We’ll also hold information stalls so girls and staff can drop by and chat, and there will be an anonymous question box so girls can confidently and discreetly ask about anything that’s worrying them or about a topic that they just want to learn more about.

But we know that we have a responsibility to do more than take part in annual awareness days and weeks – after all, mental health problems don’t take time off during the rest of the year! With this in mind we’re setting up Mental Health First Aid training for Sixth Form girls at NHSG to create additional support resource that will be available throughout the year for all the pupils. If, for example, the counsellor has a waiting list, or somebody feels unable to speak to a teacher for whatever reason, there will be fully trained Sixth Form pupils on hand to offer their support to anyone who might be struggling. This also creates a strand of support that is highly relatable because, at the end of the day, as Sixth Formers, we’ve been there – we remember what it was like to start high school and to manage our GCSE revision. We hope to launch this new initiative in September once all of the training and planning is in place.

Why is this work so important?

If we weren’t delivering these talks and providing peer support resources, there could be so many girls struggling alone, not knowing where or how to ask for help. I’ve been there myself and, when I was finally able to open up to someone and realise I wasn’t alone in what I was feeling, the sense of relief was huge. However, even if we are lucky enough to complete school without such struggles, it’s good for us all to learn more about mental health so we can be there to support our friends and family.

What about stigma?

Stigma, which often stems from a lack of knowledge, can really impact people who are struggling. If comments about OCD or depression are blasé, the people who might be experiencing those problems could feel ashamed and believe that they should just ‘get over it’ or they may feel unable to ask for help. Language is also key – suggesting that we are ‘depressed’ because there’s no pasta at lunch or that we ‘have OCD’ because we like to arrange our wardrobes in a certain way might not sound like much of an issue, but it could have a detrimental impact on someone living with OCD or depression. It belittles what they are going through – even if we don’t mean to cause them harm.

So it’s important that we have these conversations and raise awareness while we are still in school. If we educate ourselves more now about mental health, when we leave school and head into the real world each one of us could make a significant difference by just being there for someone or challenging stigma.

We can all make a difference now and in the future if we invest in our mental health learning today.