Guest Blog #1 Mike Armiger: Mental Health – A Shared Language

In the first edition of our guest blog feature, teacher Mike Armiger discusses the correlation between teachers and pupils when it comes to mental health in schools…
Teachers should have mental health training.
Teachers should be trained in counselling.
Teachers should understand the signs of mental illness.
Teachers should be given the tools and language to have a conversation about a pupil’s levels of distress, pain or overwhelm.
 You won’t have seen the last headline. In fact, you very rarely see a balanced article in terms of mental health and schools because;

  1. A) it’s not a particularly attention seeking headline and B) It’s usually written by a friend of the government trying to shift attention away from the unforgivable lack of provision we have in this county.

*Newsflash* – The nuanced answers are often missing from the debate.
You also may not have heard those the words distress, pain and overwhelm used in conversations around mental health either. I find that we are forced to look at things through a clinical lens much of the time. Take depression for example. Neurotransmitters play their part for sure but often the fact that many causes of depression are situational is once again absent from the conversation. This isn’t just a frustration in education it is across health too. I work with many clinicians who feel the same. They pretty much come to the same conclusion – We have to get better at our language surrounding mental health.
Beyond the headlines
Now I am no fan of definitions as there’s always an exception and of course because everyone’s experience is personal. But it is useful to appreciate the differences between a mental health issue and mental illness. A mental health issue is defined as an impairment of one’s wellbeing. A mental illness is something much more specific. The issue for me is that when the two get lumbered together the lines get blurred. I see first hand the fear and apprehension that many experience when it comes to discussing mental health with their students and I cant help but feel its partly because of the clinical and blurred approach we have been encouraged to take. Let’s take a nuanced and sensible approach to conversations in school about mental health.
At this point you will have questions. Please allow me to answer them…
Are you expected to counsel someone through their depression? No.
Should we have to become experts in mental illness? No
Can we have conversations with a pupil about stress? Overwhelm? Distress? Worry? YES.
 Let’s start calling it what it is. Stress, overwhelm, worry, distress etc
These are all something we feel as human beings much of the time. If it continues or there were wider concerns, then of course there are safeguarding requirements and further help may need to be sought. But let’s be explicit in stating that in the first instance staff are responding to distress.
 Now at this point I need to make this clear….
I am as passionate about mental health as I am about education. I have pushed, screamed and shouted about the need for us to increase provision and work with young people who are in desperate need of specialist support.
I myself have suffered from depression, PTSD and anxiety as well as my family being deeply affected by mental illness too. So I know all to well how specific and complex this stuff can get. Do CYP still need therapeutic input or long-term support? Of course they do. I am a big advocate of therapy. It changed my life. Am I trying to dumb down the very real problems that many young people face? Never. Just a sensible, healthy, nuanced approach that we can all get on board with. Context is everything.
But the enormity of the task we are faced with in terms of young people’s mental health requires us to rethink our current approaches. Resources is another issue altogether and I have stood inside (and outside) many a politicians office and really let rip about the challenges we face in terms of resources but language is where the culture can begin the shift.
I’ve written extensively about my previous schools and the systems we had in place to support wellbeing of both staff and pupils. We learnt that if you go about increasing awareness without having a two-tier provision then your systems get overwhelmed quite quickly. You need to plan for the increase in young people speaking about these issues and it has to be responded to quickly and effectively. It is no surprise that young people seek out adults they trust and have a relationship with, yet our systems and thought processes can sometimes forget this.
 So let’s equip those staff with the necessary tools. Some already do amazing things in terms of conversations with their young people and some may feel apprehensive about this. To adults who tell me that the best way to deal with this is to ensure that young people are resilient, I bring this to their attention – Healthy models of resilience are based on co-dependency and support. Resilience is not as simple as suck it up and get on with it. That has its own risks.
 I’m here to tell you that it is absolutely ok to have a conversation with a young person about their brain. We talk to them about learning, recall, memory and lots of different aspects of mindset all the time.
Here’s what we can use in these conversations;

  • Talking about feeling overwhelmed and brain’s sometimes needing rest.
  • How our brains can catastrophize quite easily.
  • Self-talk
  • Vulnerability
  • Ways of coping with stress.
  • Reassuring them that they aren’t alone.

Terminology is also important. Some notes on that:

  • Someone taking their own life – Not commit suicide. Since 1961 suicide is no longer a crime.
  • Low mood – Not depression. It is possible to not be depressed and still suffer from low mood.
  • Anxious –There are different levels for sure, but I’m pretty sure many people feel this daily. 
  • Can we do away with the word disorder? I know people in many circles still use it but until we arrive at a stage where we are discussing clinical diagnosis – I happen to think that the word doesn’t really help stigma.
  • Hope – Let’s use this word and go after the hopelessness that many may feel.

And finally….

  • I’m so glad you came and spoke to me
  • Can I support you in talking to someone about this?

 Being explicit in what we are asking staff to talk about is vital. Let us provide out staff in our provision with the right language so they know what to say should they be approached.
I did this with a group of my university students a few years ago. I still get messages now telling me that they were able to respond positively to a friend, a colleague or a young person who approached them about a concern with their own mental health.
It doesn’t have to be scary. Shared language in a school, in a community, is so powerful.
Together let’s humanise mental health.