A “switched on” approach to teenage mental health

Posted on: 06 Feb 2019

During Children's Mental Health Week, Suzie Longstaff, head at Putney High School, discusses a more "switched on" approach to emotional wellbeing.

The tragic death of Molly Russell has once again put teenage mental health firmly in the spotlight as alarm bells sound loudly about the dangers of social media. As digital platforms increasingly take hold of every aspect of our lives, with algorithms so adept at feeding our fears and insecurities, how can we come together and get a handle on teenage mental health, without charging into our children’s bedrooms and dragging them away from their phones? Could a more “joined up” approach to wellbeing help to address the emotional issues that are plaguing our young people.

The heart-rending BBC interview with Molly’s father, as well as #ChildrensMentalHealthWeek, have raised questions about the influence that platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and even Pinterest can have. “Social” media can be anything but, magnifying any underlying feelings of anxiety and isolation and quite literally skewing our view of the world and our place within it. But like it or not, the App Store is the playground of a whole new generation, so that is where we need to engage, using technology as a force for good and an avenue to greater awareness around mental health.

Schools must be quick to take action, and acknowledge the crucial role they have in guiding and supporting students as they navigate the choppy teenage years. Happily there are already many excellent programmes now available in Junior and Senior schools throughout the country that are helping children (yes, they are still children!) better understand and communicate their emotions, and to improve and maintain psychological wellbeing.

At the school I lead, Putney High School, mental wellbeing has always been central to everything we do. Thanks to the many initiatives we have on offer, like the Positive Schools Programme which we spearheaded last year for the GDST, our pupils are becoming more literate in the language of emotions. Staff and students have been using the “Positive App”, a digital toolkit that encourages positive habits of mind – allowing the user to “check in with their mental wellbeing” at least once a day, to map their mental energies and actively think about maintaining an even keel as they ride the inevitable emotional highs and lows.

Mental wellbeing is so much more than a buzzword. It is actively practised by professional staff who have been fully trained to deal with the important issues that affect our young people, helping pupils to tune in with how they are feeling, relating with others, and how they are thinking about themselves as they find their place in the world. But I can’t help wondering whether someone has been left behind in all of this.

Just as teachers would not be expected to single-handedly educate children in good manners or matters of personal hygiene, so they need collaborators when it comes to tackling issues of emotional wellbeing. Parents have an equal and even more powerful role to play in safeguarding children’s mental health, but up to now, they have been somewhat cast adrift on the rapid tide of change. Tackling teenage mental health requires a concerted joint effort, with pupils, teachers and their parents all in on the conversation.

That is why at Putney we have taken our Positive programme one step further, to make sure no one is falling through the gaps. Building on the success of our wellbeing digital toolkit, we have launched a parent-friendly version of the wellbeing app that students use at school. Now mothers, fathers and other essential “stakeholders” can embark on this interactive journey together with their children, and most importantly, start a conversation around mental health using the same terms of reference.

This week we introduced parents of the pupils in Year 7 to the Positive for Parents programme: a 16 week pilot programme of micro bite learning that really gets parents involved. From improving emotional literacy and regulation, to developing better focus, improved optimism and greater self and social awareness, the app allows parents to benefit from the same tools that are available to their children; giving them greater awareness of the issues and most importantly, giving them the language to connect with their children meaningfully in an engaging and non-confrontational way.

These are the type of measures that should form part of a preventative approach to all our health and wellbeing. Moving with the times to present practical, realistic solutions to the threats we are all faced with, Millenial, Generation Z or X. Let’s all do more to involve the app generation in conversations about mental health. By literally sharing one another’s experiences, opening channels of communication, and getting involved in the discussion, we have a much greater chance of happy outcomes, for everyone involved. There can be no more important responsibility than ensuring our children’s journey to adulthood is as happy and positive as it can be. Let’s get together on this journey, and embrace every tool at our disposal.

The Evening Standard reported on the wellbeing app, which has been launched by Putney High.

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About Suzie Longstaff

Suzie Longstaff is Headmistress at Putney High School, a girls' school in South West London.