Category Archives: mental illness

The summer to slow down and re start creative thinking

 

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These last few weeks have been an opportunity for me to slow down, in term time I spend half my working week supporting 4 yr olds with social, emotional and mental health needs, the other half of my week is for writing and training. I have learned over the years that as the term moves on and as the school year progresses I feel less creative, I have less energy or headspace to think and dream.

Over the last few years, I have created a pattern over the summer holidays which works for me. I have worked out what I need to recover and relax; this starts with a family holiday for a week, usually somewhere remote where there are very few people, big open spaces and water to swim in. During the first weeks of the summer break, I spend time resting, reading, I will do small pieces of writing work in a gentle un-rushed way. Then usually by week 3, I start to dream and imagine, to have creative ideas about possible side projects. Then towards the end of the summer holiday, I will start to plan and prepare for the new children. I am not yet in the stage of being ready to think about the new term, I am still in the stage of needing to be gentle to myself, allowing myself to dream, think, and try out creative ideas. I have learned to love this stage, I never used to think I was a creative person, but being married to an artist for 27 years has shown me and encouraged me to be creative. I used to be afraid of trying out something new, especially if it was something public, but I have learned to be brave, to try things and it’s ok for them to not work.

Over the last couple of years, I have also realised that I need to spend the summer holiday intentionally taking care of myself, and I have learned the key ways to do that are by wild or outdoor swimming and spending time outside. These are intentional acts, knowing that I will need to feel relaxed and rested at the start of a new school year, but I have also learned that wild swimming and being outdoors is often the time when I have more creative ideas. If I have an idea for a new book I will often go for a walk to sort it though in my head or swim to help me clarify something that has been buzzing about in my mind.

I have three weeks left until term, still time to creatively think and gently try new things, and plenty of time for more swimming!

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Thinking about mental health

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I have spent the last few weeks thinking a lot about mental health, mainly because my Mum is really struggling with her mental health at the moment but also the last two weeks I have spent a lot of time talking to staff and parents about anxious children. One of the reflections I have had is that when someone is suffering from mental health it impacts not just the person but many around them. One problem is this is such a difficult thing to talk about because we don’t want to make the person feel guilty. There is, of course, nothing for them to feel guilty about. However, poor mental health always affects more than just the sufferer. Talking about mental health is less of a taboo than it used to be, and that is a good thing, but I think talking about the impact on surrounding people is talked about less.

JK Rowling writes about the dementors in her Harry Potter series, she has talked about how the idea of dementors came about from her experience of depression. I think this is such a good description, depression and anxiety suck the life out of you, it sucks away the joy of life, which is exactly what the dementors do in her stories. The problem is this doesn’t only impact the person, it also impacts those around them. When a child is highly anxious in school, they will often show this through very challenging behaviour, leading to the staff feeling distressed and often de-skilled as they feel unable to help or support the child. When a parent has a child who has been excluded due to their challenging and often distressing behaviour, again the parents feel worried, anxious and don’t know where to turn for help and support.

There are no easy answers in all of this, but one small thing that is needed is for people around to notice, and offer support. This week my colleague Fred called me and popped in for a tea in the middle of our day between schools visits, he knew my Mum was ill and he wanted to check in that I was ok. This meant so much to me. This small act of kindness and noticing made a huge difference. I think sometimes we can feel de-skilled when we know depression and anxiety is affecting a family or a school. When I delver staff wellbeing training I regularly talk about the need to support our colleagues. If you know a teacher or teaching assistant in your school has had a tough day due to being hurt by a distressed child, check in with them, ask them if they are ok. If you know a friend is struggling with their anxious child and the child has been excluded for the day or refusing to go to school, check in with the parents, ask how they are.

The other question you can ask for those surrounding the person with mental health difficulties is what small thing can they do help themselves feel well. They need to be well themselves to be able to support the person who is mentally ill. Thinking about their own mental health is so important. I write a lot about how swimming helps me feel mentally and physically well. On Thursday this week, I knew I needed to swim outside, the weather was awful, but I knew outdoor swimming would help me. I swam in our local Lido, in the pouring rain and it was the best decision I had made all week. It felt wonderfully refreshing, it allowed me to let go of what is in my head, it was cool, but that was I needed, the rain was at times heavy but that just increased the mindfulness of the experience. I am looking forward to my next outdoor swim this week.

Mental health awareness week and yr 6 SATS week

 

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This week is mental health awareness week, mental health is talked about a lot more now, which is no doubt a fantastic and vital thing. However, for me, there is also an irony with this week being mental health awareness week as it is also Sats week for year 6 children across England ( 10 and 11 year olds) and if there was evidence of a week when thousands of children, teachers, and parents will not have good mental health, it is during Sats week. The pressure around children passing these papers is huge, it has never been great, when my daughters were in school there was some pressure, but it appears to be increasing year on year. It is common now for children to take practice papers in schools from the September they start year 6, revision sessions being provided for children for months in advance, and parents being encouraged to buy revision material. The emphasis on the Sats in yr 6 has led to the  curriculum in year 6 becoming very narrow, with the focus on teaching to the Sats paper. There are a growing number of myths about Sats and the importance of them, a recent survey found that 1 in 4 children believed their Sats results would affect their job prospects- this is of course wrong. My major concern with the Sats testing is how this is causing huge pressure on our children and negatively impacting their mental health.
Over the last few months, I have heard an increasing number of parents reporting how stressed their children are about the Sats, how their children fear they will fail, that they are not good enough, worried that if they fail their Sats they will then fail in Yr 7 and will never get GCSEs. I am sure this is not the message that schools, teachers and head teachers want to pass onto children, however when we put a huge emphasis on children passing a test at the end of Yr 6, when we continue to get the children to take revision papers all year, this will inevitably cause some children to feel huge pressure and a fear of failing.

We repeatedly hear that in the UK we have a growing number of children suffering from mental illness. In the UK 10% of children aged 5-16 have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem (mental health UK website), these are the ones who have been diagnosed, there will be other children who have not been diagnosed. There needs to be change, we need to take this seriously and we need to act. We need to look at the wide range of causes that are impacting on children’s mental health. For me, one of the areas we need to look at is how we are testing children from a young age. With the issue of testing children, there are a growing number of head teachers, educators, and parents who are lobbying for change. The group of More than a score has lots of information about ways in which we can all lobby our MP’s, speak to our children’s school and to try and bring about some change. I would encourage you to have a look at their website.

Sensory mindful walking

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The last few days I have been intentionally walking around the community meadow slowly, mindfully, with the idea of really noticing how spring is developing. The meadow is a space I regularly walk around, sometimes it is a space where I walk to wake myself up, other times to work through problems in my head. However the last few days I have been wanting to be more mindful, intentional and notice the changes that are happening. Yesterday I spent around 20 minutes listening to all the bird song, there was such a range of birds, starlings, great tits, sparrows, magpies, robin, and a wren. Often I am aware of lots of bird song, but I haven’t always noticed the wide range of birds in the meadow.

Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking about how busy and noisy a lot of our schools and early years settings are. With lots of background noises, often a bombardment of visual things around the classroom, often busy schedules and timetables. There is little time to slow down, notice, find some stillness. I do believe that our busy, noisy lives are contributing to our children’s and our own mental illness.
With this in mind during this next week I am going to be doing some sensory spring walks with the children I work with, walks where we listen, smell, feel, notice, where we have un-rushed time to see and discover what is around us, where we can get in touch with our senses and our environment. These mindful walks are a good way to introduce some slowness and quietness to children.

Talking about mental illness with children

 

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Although mental health is high on the agenda, with many people including celebrities talking about their mental illness and an increasing awareness of mental illness in teens; I think as a society it can still be hard to talk to children about mental illness. I think there is still a worry that if we use the words depression and mental illness, that children will not understand or become fearful. Even with all the discussion and acknowledgment about mental illness, with new celebrities and sports stars coming out each day talking about their struggles, I still think there is a stigma. Sadly I think there is still pain and shame felt amongst families when they talk about the mental illness in their family. A friend of mine Will Taylor is an excellent child counselor, he has recently written about his own struggle with depression and how some people have told him they wouldn’t want to go a counselor who has had depression. To me, this suggests that some people still view mental illness as something that is shameful.

I firmly believe we need to talk to children from a young age about mental illness, we need to use the correct language and help them to understand what is happening, by doing this we break down the stigma. Obviously, we need to do this in an age appropriate way, in a way which helps the child to not be scared but to give them enough information to help them to understand what is going on. A common held misbelieve is that children will not notice, they will not be aware when a parent or loved one becomes depressed. However, we know that children pick up on the smallest of changes, they know when something is different. I grew up with a mum who has Bi-polar, I was a child in the 70’s when depression was never spoken about. I have memories of being 5 and recognising the warning signs that she was becoming ill, they were small, but I noticed. She would give us extra money to buy sweets, she would start baking lots, this was always the begining of a manic episode. These sound like tiny changes but I noticed. My Dad talked about my mum being ill, but it wasn’t until I was 14 in a school assembly that Mind was leading, and I heard the term mental illness and realised that was what my Mum had. Until then I had presumed she had cancer and that she would die. If we do not use the correct words with children, if we do not explain what is happening, then children will fill in the missing gaps, and often get it wrong. Our role as adults is to help children to understand that depression, anxiety, bi-polar, schizophrenia etc are all mental illness, they are not something to be afraid of, or to be ashamed of, we can talk about it.

I do appreciate that it can be really hard to find the words to help a child understand, for me that is where books and films can be so helpful. I have written two books and an animation for children of different ages to help them understand Bi-polar. But there are a growing number of good resources about depression. Below I have listed and linked some of the ones I really like. On Wednesday this week, it is mental health day, there will be lots of discussions all week about mental illness, and that is great, but I would like to encourage people to talk to children as well.

 

Mummy’s Got Bippolar– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Can I tell you about Bipolar Disorder– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Mummys’ Got Bipolar animation

Can I tell you about anxiety- Lucy Willets and Polly Waite

Why are you so sad: A child’s book about parental depression– Beth Andrews

I had a black dog – Matthew Johnstone

Pretend Friends: A story about schizophrenia and other illnesses can cause hallucinations- Alice Hoyle

The wise mouse- Virgina Ironside

The illustrated Mum- Jaqueline Wilson