I have had a number of roles in alternative provision, but by far my favourite was working as the Teacher-in-charge of a psychiatric in-patient service. On my 21st birthday I was interviewed for the role and got it (I might have been 22, it was a while ago!) I remember talking in the interview about Goffman’s work on the presentation of the self, how I would approach safeguarding issues and was so eager to change children’s experiences of education.
Education saved me, there is no doubt about that. It was my chink of light in the darkness of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Depression was something that has visited my life in different ways throughout the years, but never once when I was a child was I asked what I thought would help me. Even as an adult, being a well established user of mental health services on and off throughout the years and a number of diagnosis that followed (Tourette's syndrome, OCD) , I don’t think I am ever really asked ‘what would help you?’
There is often the assumption with mental health difficulties that you don’t know what could help. I think it is probably an assumption that pervades those with physical disability as well. The Place2Be’s campaign to mark Children’s Mental Health week of ‘expressing yourself’ is an important one. The idea of expressing yourself is even further negated when children become unwell and becomes another barrier of having their voices heard in the cacophony of experts.
Throughout the year, many of the most vulnerable children’s voices haven’t been heard. COVID-19 has meant that the natural touch points where teachers might notice something is not quite right, have been eroded. Teachers have done an incredibly job in acknowledging some of these worries and inviting vulnerable children in to school. I know I would never have been invited into school because my fear, my worries, my trauma was buried so deep. Yet being at school was certainly safer than being at home, even during a pandemic.
To mark #ChildrensMentalHealthWeek I have shared resources which include an image of a child who is experiencing mental health difficulties with a quote from a child who has been unwell. They are expressing themselves, telling the world what might help, what might be difficult and what could help. Matching this is resources that support teachers, pastoral staff and even therapeutic staff, in negotiating better conversations with children about their mental health difficulties and what their diagnosis means for them.
Now, is even more of an important time to listen to children expressing themselves but beyond that thinking about how we might understand what a right return for children returning to school. How we know about the things that have gone well for them, the things children are desperate to share and celebrate, but also how we might understand their pain and support them as they return.
'Catch up' shouldn’t just be about catching up with work – but about catching up with relationships. Finding out what has happened for the young people in our lives, to catch up with how they are emotionally too.