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Mental Health Awareness Week

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, with a specific focus this year on Anxiety. According to the NHS, nearly 300,000 young people in Britain have an anxiety disorder, with an estimated 5–19% of all children and adolescents affected, and about 2–5% of children younger than 12. But what is anxiety and how can we support children and adolescents to cope with it?

We will all have experienced anxiety at some point. It’s that feeling of unease, such as worry or fear in the face of an event that feels like a threat to us. We can have mild or severe anxiety which can cause symptoms in the body as well as the mind. Typical responses include flight, fight, freeze or fawn – that last one is people-pleasing and agreeing in order to reduce the threat we feel. As you will be aware, lots of things can lead to feelings of anxiety in young people: exam pressures, friendships and relationships, moving to a new area, or other significant life events. Children should know that feeling worried or uneasy is an understandable and common response to a change or stressful event in life, and that it is perfectly normal to feel anxious sometimes.

The challenge, for those of us who work with young people and for parents, is to not necessarily encourage our young people to avoid the storms in life (which are sometimes unavoidable anyway), but instead to help to facilitate those in our care to become more resourceful as they travel through these storms. This is about becoming self-aware and discovering the resources they have, internally and externally, that will help them. Moving through life's various storms and establishing what works for them will allow them to become increasingly confident to face future challenges.

Anxiety becomes a more serious problem, however, when it starts to have an ongoing effect on someone’s behaviour and thoughts, interfering with their school, home and social life. These can result in anxiety disorders which require other types of interventions.

During Mental Health Awareness Week we will be sharing resources and information with our pupils to help them recognise feelings of stress and anxiety and will be facilitating them to discover and develop appropriate strategies to cope in worrying or anxious situations. This work is part of our ongoing focus on pupil wellbeing and mental health, delivered year-round at BGS. Our aim is to develop emotional literacy across our community, and for everyone to discover useful resources for them personally, therefore developing the resilience they need to successfully face challenges encountered in life, now and into the future.

A key and useful concept our pupils will be taught about is the idea that we each have a ‘stress container’. It contains those things that are stressing or distressing us. The size of each container varies from person to person, indicating that, for a number of reasons, some of us can hold more challenging situations in our lives than others. If the container gets filled to its brim with stressful situations, it will overflow – this is termed emotional snapping, where we are unable to cope or live normally. The container does however have a tap near the bottom. As well as considering what things might cause stress and fill pupils’ containers, pupils are also encouraged to think about things that will turn the tap on, allowing some of the stress to drain away. Developing these helpful coping strategies will enable young people to successfully navigate periods of stress and anxiety without becoming overwhelmed. Below are six simple ideas that can help manage stress, but anything that relaxes us, uplifts us or helps us to feel connected and positive is a way of opening the tap, reducing stress, and releasing some of the pressure.

  • Getting 20 minutes or more fresh air a day
  • Exercising
  • Spending time enjoying a hobby or interest
  • Talking to friends and family
  • Breathing exercises
  • Participating in meditation

Of course, sometimes these techniques aren’t enough to help manage anxious feelings and some young people require additional support. At BGS, we are well on our way to achieving our aim of having all our staff – teaching and support – trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid. These courses give staff the skills and confidence to spot the signs of mental health issues in a young person, offer first aid and guide them towards the support they need. In addition to pastoral teams that include pupils’ Form Tutors, Heads of House and deputy Heads of House, we are also fortunate to have two counsellors at BGS, who can work with pupils who are finding things particularly challenging.

We hope that by talking honestly, openly and frequently about mental health and wellbeing our pupils will know that it is okay to ask for help, recognise when they need support and be able to help support their friends in turn, should they need it. This week’s Mental Health Awareness week is an opportunity for us to continue these important conversations in our community.

Aruna Gunawardana
Assistant Head, Wellbeing and Mental Health Lead