The importance of talking about mental illness.

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We know that for years mental illness has been a taboo subject, this is beginning to change and shift, but it can still be an area we find it hard to talk to children and young people about, particularly young children. I grew up with a mum with Bipolar, I knew she was ill, both Mum and Dad spoke about her illness, but no one ever named it. As I got older I heard about cancer and so presumed my mum had cancer and that she was going to die, I filled in the gaps, I made up my own story to explain what was happening. That is what children do. I found out what my Mum’s illness was when I was 14 in a school assembly which the charity Mind was taking, they described manic depression ( as it was called then) and I had a light bulb moment, I suddenly realised that is my Mum.

I firmly believe we need to help children to understand about mental illness, we need to give them the words to explain the illness, and we need to help them feel safe and know they can ask questions. If we don’t talk about it, this is suggesting it is shameful, if we don’t acknowledge our feelings around it, this is unhealthy for everyone. Bipolar and mental illness is still a taboo subject with some of my extended maternal family, they still feel embarrassed and awkward. This is so sad and can leave a legacy of hurt and confusion.

Sometimes it can be hard to find the right words to explain a mental illness to children and young people, and we can be worried about using the wrong words. I want to reassure people it is better to be open and honest, it is better to discuss and explain rather than keeping quiet. Many excellent websites can help you to find the right words. Ones I would recommend in the UK are Mind and Mentalhealth.

Books and films are also an excellent resource to explain to children. I wrote a book last year called Mummy’s Got Bipolar this has just been turned into an animation which is a free resource on youtube, over the summer I also wrote a book for JKP called Can I tell you about Bipolar, this will be available in February 2018.

 

Image by Jon Birch in the book and animation

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Belonging

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This week I have been reflecting on the need we all have to feel that we belong, the dictionary definition of belonging is: has a place, fitting in, being included. This week has been the start of the new term for many pre schools, nurseries, and schools; many children have started nursery or school for the first time, both infants and senior, some adults have begun new jobs. For some those first few days can be overwhelmingly scary and frightening. In my nurture role, I have the privilege of being with four-year-olds. Watching these little ones start at their new school this week, I was reminded again of how much they need to feel that they belong, that the school needs to be a place where the children feel they fit in, where they are wanted and will be included.

Knowing that you belong is a feeling, you know when you do, you also know when you don’t belong. I believe as people we all have a desire and need to belong somewhere, this is in the groups we are part of, the faith groups, our work places, our places of education, our families and our friendship groups. I can think of many times when I have been in places, groups that I felt that I didn’t belong, I felt that I didn’t fit in, that I wasn’t understood, where I knew my voice was not being listened to, this left me feeling sad, isolated and unwanted.

This week I have seen some children who have coped wonderfully at the start of the new term, they have been excited, they have felt they had a place, and they belonged. I have seen other children who have been desperately sad, who have been overwhelmed by being in a place they did not feel was for them, a place they felt they did not belong. At these times it is so important that the children have calm, soothing adults around them who recognise and acknowledge their worries and fears. They need adults who are using emotion language to acknowledge and recognise their feelings; at these times it can be useful to use a script, e.g., “I can see you are feeling so sad about being in school, it’s ok I am here for you”. When a child hears this, they know the adult has recognised their strong feeling and worries they know they have been heard. Often what children hear after a few initial soothing words are the words ‘it’s time to stop crying now,‘ these words can make a child feel more isolated and scared.

There are simple things which help children to feel they belong:

The start of welcoming a child warmly by their name as they arrive is an important beginning. Most settings have named and pictured pegs and drawers for children in nursery and primary school, this can help them feel they have a place. However, some children then need further guidance, an invitation to find a book or join in an activity, with some children they need a member of staff to guide them and support them to the carpet/ activity/ book corner. This sounds obvious, but it is not always remembered in the rush of the morning arrivals. For the child who is feeling overwhelmed they need the gentle guidance and support from a trusted adult. I often think it is in the first few weeks of a new term that schools could benefit from having volunteer workers. A few calm, safe adults who can be there to sit with children, welcome them, guide them to the activity/ book corner, this frees up the teachers to speak with parents. Reception classes often have one teaching assistant. However, one TA to help settle up to 30 children can be a big challenge. If there are additional adults, who can reassure the children, listen to their stories about their journey arriving, look at their conkers, hear about the runaway dog, etc. then children arrive feeling welcomed, feeling they have a place, it helps them to feel safe and secure. By being welcomed and settled well the children are then ready to learn and explore that day. However, if a child arrives and feels scared, overwhelmed, frightened it will take them a long time to calm, to regulate and they will not be ready to start learning.

Start of a new academic year

 

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The bulk of my work is as a nurture consultant, supporting 4 yr olds in their reception year. Starting school is a major transition and can be so overwhelming for children and parents. The children I and my colleagues support have been identified as needing some extra nurture and extra support. However, in the first few days and weeks, all the new children ( and many of the parents ) need that extra nurture and support. The move to school is such a big change, even for those children who have been in early years settings full time. They are taking on so much new information, new experiences, there are not as many staff as there were in the nursery, the school is often louder, bigger, lots of children. There are many new noises, sights, sounds, smells, everything is often different, that can be so overwhelming even for the most confident and able child.

With all these new changes children will often be exhausted, I often hear parents who have had children in full-time nursery say that school shouldn’t be any different. It is important to understand that change is tiring, change makes us as adults feel exhausted. Think about when you started a new job; I bet you were exhausted at the end of the week; it is just the same with our children. The brain is taking on so much new information, it is working so hard, and this is tiring. So my tip is whether your child is starting infant school, junior school or senior school expect them to be very tired at the end of the week. Acknowledge this and support them with these feelings, they may well be more snappy, emotional, irritable, be there for them in these feelings. Acknowledge how they feel and validate those feelings for them. It is ok to be tired and to feel overwhelmed and to feel a bit scared at the start of something new. Be kind and gentle to them; this is a time of big change, they need to be supported and nurtured.

Also as parents, this can be a hard time for us, many of us cried when our child started school or senior school ( or university!), we can feel worried about how they will survive, overwhelmed by the change that is happening. Be kind to yourself, offer yourself kind words, do something that makes you feel happy, that might be eating cake or going for a run or a swim, speak to someone you know and trust about your feelings.

Finding what brings you joy

 

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It took me a while to figure out what brought me a deep sense of joy, I realised a few years ago it is swimming, especially swimming outside. At the start of this summer, I hoped to have more opportunities to swim outside. Thankfully I have been fortunate to swim in some fantastic places. Swimming in a river with dragon flies in June, swimming in the sea on the Isle of Mull and Iona, swimming in a lovely outdoor pool in an avenue of Beech trees at Ammerdown and then today swimming through the arch at Durdle Door and then also at Stair Hole, Lulworth.

Swimming outside feels quite adventurous, I am not a natural risk taker, but wild swimming gives me a major kick of endorphins, leaving me feeling alive and thankful and a little bit adventurous. I am always a bit concerned that I am not a very strong swimmer; due to a few scary experiences in the sea in the past I am quite cautious and very wary of dangers. However today I realised I am a stronger swimmer than I had thought and spent quite a long time happily swimming around and through the arches, enjoying the sun on the sea, admiring the beautiful rock formation. Clearly, five years of swimming each week day in my local pool have paid off.

So much of my work and focus is on wellbeing, such an important aspect of wellbeing is finding what makes you happy and brings you joy. This final week of the summer holidays I will be pulling together ideas and resources, preparing for the new term and new children, thinking about their individual needs and how to enhance their wellbeing. I feel very thankful to be going into the new term feeling rested and with some great memories of brilliant swims.

 

Photos from North beach Iona (Iain Cotton) and Stair hole, Lulworth

Nurturing your soul

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This last weekend I have been taking time to stop and reflect, I attended a retreat led by Ian and Gail Adams, the retreat was very spacious with lots of opportunity for stillness practice. Some of my favourite times were sat in silence with my feet in a pool and also swimming, silently, with others. Attending a retreat, at this time of the year gives me the space to think about the year ahead ( I still think in school years as that is now the bulk of my work). It is also a valuable time to nurture my soul, to be fed and nourished. I noticed this year that many of the people attending were therapists or worked in a caring role. I think all of us in this position knew that we need to have time to be nurtured ourselves if we are to go on and give out to others.

One of my thoughts from this weekend has been around self-love.

In my nurture role, the underpinning principle that I encourage the Ta’s and teachers to understand is that the children we work with need to feel that they are loved, they are special and they are safe. We all know that to be loved is a fundamental need that everyone has. Until the children know this, they are not in a position to develop and thrive.

Supporting children who are scared and overwhelmed can be challenging. It is so important that the adults are in a good place themselves, that the adults have a good wellbeing. I believe an essential part of having a good wellbeing is by loving ourselves. This can happen in many different ways, through taking time to do something we enjoy, resting, eating well, exercising but also we need to think about how we nurture and love our soul, our spiritual wellbeing.

In my book on adult wellbeing I have a chapter on spiritual wellbeing, this is something which is often overlooked when we think about our wellbeing. An element of spiritual wellbeing is about feeling connected, feeling part of something bigger than ourselves. For some spiritual wellbeing is about engaging in religious practices, for others it is about contemplative practice outside of religious practice. There is growing evidence that spiritual practices are linked with an increase in better health and wellbeing.

The retreat this weekend was excellent to help me refocus on my spiritual wellbeing, it reminded me of some important practices and taught me new ones. With all of these things, we need to keep practising, keep engaging, noticing our wellbeing and how we are feeling. When we can see that something is out of line, we need to address that. I know, to be able to work at my best in September with my nurture children I need to spend time caring for myself and allowing myself to be nurtured by others, and Ian and Gail did this very well.

Slowing down

 

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One joy of working term time with children is that I get to live at a different pace during the summer holidays. I can slow down, it is a time to have the space to think creatively; a time to reflect, enjoy the space and to start thinking ahead.

Most of my year has involved supporting children in their wellbeing or writing about adults wellbeing, During this year I have continued to work on learning how I can live out wellbeing not just write and talk about it. I firmly believe an important aspect of wellbeing is learning how to live with stillness; also how to integrate into our lives time to slow down, notice and appreciate, to find a balance in our lives. It is so hard to notice and appreciate the people and places around us when our heads are full, and we are rushing.

So much emphasis on our society is to be busy, measuring our success by how busy we are, as if saying consistently ‘I am so busy’ makes us feel more valued. Since becoming self-employed, I have tried hard to step away from that mindset. Even writing that feels slightly absurd as a real fear of being self-employed is not having enough work, however, as we all know being frantically busy does not equal working well and it often does not help us to have a good well-being.

I started the summer holidays with a break to Mull, where slowness was almost forced on us by the single track roads, and wide open spaces called out to be looked at, noticed and enjoyed. It was my husbands birthday while we were away and our daughters bought him a new filter coffee jug. A family joke is that he is growing into a hipster and this was to add to his hipster lifestyle. The joy of this coffee filter is that not only does it make beautiful coffee it does it slowly. To make a coffee now takes longer, we grind the beans and then have to wait while the filter slowly brews and drips the coffee through the filter. It is worth the wait as the coffee tastes so good. Morning coffee is an essential part of my routine! But to now have this slow brewing coffee has forced me to start each morning on a slower note. I have noticed that while I am waiting for the coffee I am increasingly aware of the smell and the anticipation of the taste of the coffee ahead, this coffee filter has helped me to be more mindful first thing.

We are half way through the school holidays, my next few weeks I will start thinking about the new children I am to work with, begin to make new resources and continue to read more to increase my understanding. But I will also be enjoying the slower pace and the opportunity to think creatively.

Embracing stillness and slowness

 

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So much of the nurture role I do is helping children and the staff who support them to find a place of calmness and safety. There are many tools my colleagues, and I use to do this, it’s not rocket science! But it does need practitioners who can be calm and secure themselves. When you have a child who is throwing, kicking, biting, running, etc. because they are scared and frightened and have overwhelming feelings, they desperately need an adult who is solid and calm to help them feel safe and to come to a place of calmness.

Over the last three years of doing this work, I have realised increasingly how important it is for me to have space and encounter stillness outside of work. I firmly believe it is from a place of stillness and silence that I can become nourished to do my role. Daily swimming and gardening are important aspects for me in nourishing this. In the last six months, I have been writing a book about adults wellbeing, an important section in this book is about being comfortable with silence and stillness and be able to slow down.

This week we are away on the Isle of Mull, it’s not a very large Island, but many of the roads are narrow with passing points. If you are driving around the island this forces slow driving, also the scenery is so stunning, so you end up stopping regularly to watch an Eagle, look for Otters, or stop for the many Highland Cows and Sheep that are on the road. Although Mull has many visitors, it is easy to be in the hills or a beach and encounter nobody. What I have loved about this week away is embracing the stillness, at home I regularly walk around the community meadow at the back of our house and I love the stillness this brings, but here on Mull, it is another level of stillness and slowness and silence. To be able to spot Otters or watch for the Sea Eagles or Golden Eagles you have to sit and be still and watch, I have learnt how wildlife watching is such a mindful exercise.

The summer break from the nurture work is a time for me to take stock, reflect, have space to think about my writing and training, to be creative and plan. It is also a time to read, to nourish myself, to feed my soul. I feel this week of slowness, of big open spaces, of stillness and silence is a good starting point.

nurture and wellbeing