Mental Health – A shared language

 

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 too. They pretty much come to the same conclusion – We have to get better at our language surrounding mental health.

 

 

Image result for mental health teachers headlines

 

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 ones 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 effected 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 all together 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 I 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.

 

 

 

 

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MH Green paper – Smoke, mirrors and a ray of light

Yesterday the government released it’s green paper for children and young people’s mental health. The main headline was ‘£300 million awarded to schools and youth mental health provision.’ On the surface it looks like a step in the right direction and something that we should all be welcoming. Here’s a piece breaking down why this is just a sticking plaster but don’t worry I have also left some room at the end for much needed hope.

I want to make something clear, I REALLY wanted to welcome this, jumping up and down and crying tears of joy for how many young people will receive support. I wanted to believe that the pain many young people are in, will begin to heal. I wanted to believe that finally we were starting to join up the dots and push forward a progressive agenda for CYP’s mental health. But sadly upon reading the green paper, I found myself dismayed and even more frustrated than before.

Here’s the context and reality;

Currently the NHS spends 14x more on adult mental health than it does children’s. Yet we know that 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24. Go figure.

2.52 million children and young people are in need of mental health provision. Currently the NHS has capacity for 230,000. That’s around 11%…

Green paper announced that this money will be made available in the form of MH support teams to at least a 5th or a quarter of the country by 2022/23. So what happens in the meantime to these young people? It’s not enough. Prevention and early intervention is key. For a government supposedly keen on funding formulas and efficiencies, why would you not see that it’s sensible both morally and economically, to fund earlier access to provision?

New 4 week waiting time for CAMHS & MH services

Some children and young people I know do see a practitioner in that time. But it is usually for an assessment before being placed on a waiting list. So I would be amazed if this meant that they will start receiving treatment in that time.

Ah yes. The mental health lead in schools

Now I quite like this idea and have had head’s of wellbeing in my previous schools. I believe fundamentally that this is an investment worth making ten times over. I welcome that they will receive training and that they will also receive support from other agencies.

But here’s the problem with this proposal. Many schools are facing a real terms cut in their budgets. Will this money cover the designated lead’s salary and time? I don’t know many teachers that can take on such a massive commitment without being given the time and resources in which to do it. Alongside a teaching timetable and god knows what else, with no extra money available and addressing a huge need, is this not the definition of running somebody into the ground? The mental health lead is then becomes the person supporting the whole school’s wellbeing but not their own. Will the next thing be a designated lead for poverty? We have our role to play and are happy to do it but for crying out oud, at least give us the means to do it properly.

Well why not hand the role to a member of the pastoral team I hear you say. Well I’m glad you asked…

Mental health support teams

Up and down the country many schools are seeing their pastoral and support staff  teams decimated. I’ve lost count of the various school and colleges this year that have told me they had no option but to make redundancies.

I was pleased to hear about MH support teams. I attached a CAMHS practitioner and community wellbeing services to my last school and the benefits were huge.

“We will fund new mental health support teams, supervised by NHS children and young people’s MH staff, to provide extra capacity for early intervention and ongoing help. These teams will be linked to groups of primary and secondary schools and to colleges, providing interventions to support those with mild or moderate needs.”

Due of the lack of provision, thresholds get higher, so mild or moderate needs can often in reality be complex. Also due to the increasing need what will the support teams thresholds be? It’s likely to not be moderate or mild because of this…

The green paper says “Mental health support teams will work alongside other people who provide mental health support including; school nurses, educational psychologists, school counsellors, community organisations and social workers.”

Really? Let’s break that down then.

Ed psychs – school have to pay for to use and are rare in many local authorities.

School nurses – work differently in many local authorities.

Social workers – Absolutely up to their eye balls already and struggling for resources. Thresholds usually quite high.

School counsellors – Usually bought in by schools who can only see a certain amount of CYP due to lack of funding to pay for more of their time.

Community organisations – Also at capacity in many places and in my experience are often having to charge for services too.

Also, what about universities? We know we have a huge issue there too

TOTAL BS

They can’t declare to be investing further in mental health support services with a ‘new fund’ when they continue to siphon off money from every budget related to CYP and schools. It is both false economics and classic smoke and mirrors.

I for one am sick of it. Each week I see the problem getting worse. There is little prevention or early intervention work taking place for many who need it due to demands, even when they access it, that work doesn’t go on for long enough and crisis provision is in an absolute state. Most weeks there are hardly any crisis beds.

And where’s the hope?

The hope is found in schools and support services who just continue to go above and beyond to keep our young people safe and well with no resources, time or investment in our own wellbeing. The hope is that we won’t give up even when governments continue to fail them.

I leave you with this story from a practitioner I met last week;

A secondary school History teacher had been increasingly concerned about a young man suffering from depression over the past 6 months. He was referred to CAMHS but was still waiting. For the past few weeks he was in crisis at home and most nights was spent going between crisis teams and A & E before returning home and repeating the cycle again. He began to self harm. His history teacher found out about this and went on a home visit after school one day. She sat with him and his family and noticed that he had open a tab on his computer about the Christmas market. She spoke with him about this and discovered that he had always wanted to go but felt like he wasn’t worthy. A week later the history teacher, the deputy head and learning support assistant took this young man to the Manchester Christmas markets. For no other reason other than they wanted to help and he felt calm and cared for in their presence. He still needs ongoing support but they continue to have his back each and every day.

I remain steadfast in my belief that these people up and down the country, through connection, care and compassion, can begin to heal many wounds. But in order to do that, we need government to have our backs and ultimately, the kids and young people’s.

 

 

 

 

A letter to my rational brain…

I should note that this won’t work for everyone. This is the tone that I need. It might not be the tone that you need. Be firm but kind to yourself.

 

Dear Mike,

It’s been a while since I last wrote. I think you probably know why. And no it’s not because I couldn’t remember the password for the blogsite, although that may be somewhat true…

We both know this year has been tough. For different reasons than previous years. There’s been the depression, the workload, the constant travelling and for sure that’s all taken it’s toll. But most of the year has been spent deciding to move house and commit to things on a whole new level. That’s been hard for you and I understand that this level of commitment is not only terrifying but also unnerving. But here you are. Despite the tears, anxiety attacks, constant fear of the unknown and feeling as though you don’t have a clue what you’re doing with your life most days, you actually did it. You made that almighty jump and for that you deserve the biggest fist bump.

The irrational part of your brain has ruled your life for the past 12 months. Throwing you into crisis most days, making you doubt yourself, convincing you that happiness is beyond your capabilities and that you don’t deserve success or love. It happens, but unlike before where you’ve been able to pull it back, this period seems to have completely overwhelmed you. Low energy and motivation means you’ve put on weight, high anxiety has meant you’ve passed on opportunities that you would have loved and lack of interest in your own wellbeing has crippled you to the point where you have become desperate to fix other peoples circumstances, in order to make yourself feel better. Again, these things happen and it’s ok. But I’m writing to you because I know it’s not what you want. You’re self sabotaging and I feel like now is the time for you to be bold.

Here’s what most weeks look like.  On your day off, you will get out of bed and think about all the limiting self beliefs that your brain is currently holding onto. You will try and work for a bit but then confine yourself to a space with the curtains drawn and hide from the world. In between doing that you will go to the shop and pick up a basket of food that will make you feel awful. Awful physically, awful mentally and awful spiritually. You numb the pain and uncertainty by making sure that you can’t feel anything. It’s easier right? You know the science. You know the theories behind it. You work in this field every day. But I know that makes it worse and fuels the self loathing so I’m not going to bang on about that.

Here’s the deal. This isn’t about giving you a hard time. This is about being truthful, authentic and ensuring you’re kind to yourself. This has been the pattern for a year and it’s not getting you anywhere. You’ve made excuses, limited your potential, pushed people away and now here we are. This is what your most authentic and rational self wants you to do;

Get up and smile. You know what smiling does to your nervous system and your being. You know it’s good. And despite what your brain tells you, you have so much to smile about. Go meditate. When you meditate your thoughts are profound, your reflection is deep and your work is more meaningful. You feel connected to everything. When you’re in your best place you connect to everyone and everything, its who you are. GO BACK TO YOGA! The trauma in your body is still there. When you work with yoga and commit to it you feel on top of the world. Most importantly – Go back to the gym. It’s your safe place. The place where you felt like you were achieving things only for you. The place where you believed in yourself unconditionally. But more than anything it was where you committed to looking after your body. Your body gets you through each week. You need it.

When you do this you make better decisions, you’re more confident, you look and feel good and you embrace life. If it’s one thing you know, it’s that you can’t always depend on life or people giving you what you’re seeking. So stop looking elsewhere for it. It’s right in front of you.

If you’re thinking that you can’t do this (which your brain will try to convince you of) remember when you lost over 6 stone? Remember when you had no money? Remember when you were crippled with loss and depression? Remember when the worst things in your life happened?

Remember when someone came along and sorted it all out for you? I don’t. Because they didn’t. You did. You survived all of that. You got your life together. It scared the shit out of you but you still did it and you succeeded. You have done so many amazing things in your life and so many people stand with you. They are amazing people that will help you. But first you’ve got to help yourself. This time, take the time to appreciate how bad ass you can be when you live a life of happiness. It’s not beyond your grasp anymore. It never was. The circumstances are no longer stacked against you. You’re not living in crisis anymore. I know it’s what your used to but go find a better place to feel safe and familiar.

Don’t settle for this, you’ve never settled for anything before. Demand more.

Oh… and share this with others. It will make you accountable. But also there might be others who will need this. I feel that you needed me to reintroduce yourself. Your brain has convinced you that this is your story. But I’m here to tell you the truthful version of the story of how you got to where you are. It’s time to write a whole new chapter.

When you do these things Mike, everyone benefits. This is about you for sure, but also about everyone else who needs your help. Remember what that kind man who walked you to your hotel for no reason in Africa said to you;

‘Everything you do and say, shows the world who you are.’

Mike x

 

The contradiction of joy

 

For me, choosing a film to watch is always a nightmare. I realised at one point that my movie collection contained every possible film that most people would describe as ‘utterly depressing’.

Each film on the shelf depicted life as a struggle and involved some form of adversity. I know what you’re thinking, Dumbo is all about adversity, and you would be right. But I’m talking about films that focused on tragedy and trauma. These are the films that I long to watch. I am not saying that everyone who watches these films experiences life in his way, but after looking through my collection the other day and speaking with many people about this over the years It made me consider the complexities of joy.

 

For many people, major life events such as birthdays, Christmas, marriage, moving in with your partner, graduating, your children leaving home, a new job etc are all events which involve celebration, loved ones and a sense of happiness and excitement.

Many of us have been to some amazing weddings where we have experienced nothing but warm fuzzy feelings, we’ve seen many amazing students graduate and we’ve sat around the table at many Christmases with our loved ones. But I want to talk about another side to these events that doesn’t get recognised or understood an awful lot.

I work with many children and adults for whom these events are not easy and represent something completely different. That adversity and trauma I mentioned previously plays a big role in this. I grew up with children in the care system and every Christmas was so tough for them.

Imagine this;

Being in someone else’s house, with their family and friends, celebrating an event which should be full of joy but instead feeling a sense of loss and fear. The loss of not having your loved ones there, someone to call your own. Now that scenario we to some extent understand and take on board but there’s another scenario that rarely gets spoken of. What about when you are surrounded by your family and friends at these events but your past experiences mean that you’re reminded of their failings, lack of relationship and trauma.

Move this thought pattern onto adult relationships. Many people who have experienced trauma, mental illness, bereavement and many more of life’s challenges, go into relationships emotionally unprepared for what they may encounter. As relationships develop you learn more about one another. In this, for many of us, lies the real difficulty.

Society perpetuates these mantras that you should ‘always follow your gut’ or ‘your sub conscious knows what you really want’. However, for many of us, this would be catastrophic. I know that acting on my gut feelings or thoughts are generally speaking, a terrible idea. Usually these feelings try to convince me of a something that is not actually true. My depression and anxiety means that when I feel overwhelmed or as though I can’t control what is about to happen, I run. I immediately try to get out of the situation through fear of feeling vulnerable or not knowing what the outcome could be. Even if it involves possible success.

 Our brains can catastrophize situations and run us through every worst-case scenario, even at a time where we should experience complete joy. Joy is not easy to feel when this is your thought pattern. It feels like an emotion you must work hard for, that you reach maybe at the end of a period filled with difficulty. For many joy is initially very painful.

My friend gave me permission to share this story in the hope that it would let others know that they are not alone in what they are feeling;

A friend of mine who had experienced great loss and depressions in her life was moving in with her partner. He supported her no end and they loved each other unconditionally throughout some very dark periods. A week before the moving date I arrived at her flat ready to pack up boxes and help her with the move. I pulled up outside and saw her sat on the steps of her flat with a cigarette and large glass of wine. I could see immediately that she was in a state of crisis. I sat next to her and gave her my ‘come on what’s up’ smile. She burst into tears.

“I know this is what I want, I genuinely do. So why is my brain going through every possible scenario that could go wrong and why do I feel so sad? I can’t stop crying.” After listening to her for some time it became clear what was happening. She had run through every worst-case scenario in the book. Every scenario that could go wrong had been considered and even more difficult to process was the feeling that she wanted her father there. Her father was nothing but vile towards her and had caused untold emotional damage to her as a child.  She didn’t actually want him there but she felt that she did and it was this loss and contradiction that she was struggling with. We spoke about this and what she said next stayed with me.

“It’s such a contradiction. I don’t want him there on the day I move in with carl and if he’s not there I will still feel sad that he’s not there. But if he comes, I’ll be reminded of how awful he is too. Carl’s parents will be there with champagne, celebrating with us. They’ll be warm and full of happiness. But I won’t take much comfort from that because I’ve got no one there who is mine.” This struck me because it’s the same thing the kids I grew up with and looked after experienced every time something went well. I sat with her and talked it over and eventually we arrived at a point where I would come with her to move her in and I would be the person with a bottle of champagne that was hers and hers alone. This in no way took the feeling away, but she told me later that it helped her on a difficult day.

 It’s this pain and sense of loss that often gets overlooked. People are quick to tell us that we should be happy and grateful. Or that we are being dramatic and that our traumatic experiences were ages ago so we have to move on now. Is it therefore any wonder that we feel a deep sense of shame for even feeling this way? I’m here to tell you that it’s ok and to ask us all to consider the following;

 For both children and adults in this situation it is important to recognise that our thought pattern is probably logical once we break it down. We must consider how these thoughts are informed. If your experience of relationships as a child or adult is that of loss, trauma and pain, why wouldn’t your thought formation be worst case scenario?

What we can do about this is a blog for another time, but for now I just want us to consider this.

We would do well to remember that for many, joy doesn’t always consist of the endless possibilities of success. In fact, it can often represent the opposite. Endless possibilities of rejection, vulnerability and pain. It gets better and you eventually manage to write your own stories of joy and change the narrative. But the first few experiences as an adult are often hard and painful initially. What I do know is that people who know this about you are worth their weight in gold. Without ever telling you that you should feel joy or that it’s understandable to feel this contradiction, just knowing and being present is often enough for us.

So, I guess in a weird way this explains the makeup of my film collection. And yes, I still love Dumbo.

Breath first, talk later

Anyone that knows me will tell you when asked the question ‘what is Mike’s passion?’ that the answer will without a doubt be looked after children and mental health. These issues are very close to my heart for several reasons but mainly because I’ve lived with, cared for and worked with these children for many years now. No amount of professional training or qualifications shape my work as much as my own lived and shared experiences within my home. I am grateful for these unique experiences and I have been fortunate enough to experience the remarkable aspects of their being but also witness these children falling into vulnerable and challenging spaces.

In my opinion part of the issue in dealing with the challenge of mental health in our children is that we sometimes fail to recognise that the difficulties a child may be experiencing is often situational. ‘Chemical imbalance’ ‘lack of resilience’ and ‘emotionally sensitive’ are all phrases I hear used regularly. Of course there are children who may fall into these categories and neurotransmitters certainly play a part but there is a bigger picture here. Life is anything but linear and in my own experience, situations have played a huge role in my own mental health. Often plunging me into mental illness or pushing my towards over functioning. This is the same for our children.

We all know that a child’s formative years are crucial. Let’s take a looked after child for example. We know that the children who are placed in the care system have experienced much trauma during and after these early years in their development. We are also forced to accept what comes next for many of these traumatised children, but I ask you to just take a minute to contemplate this part of their lives…

That child goes into a new home, with new care givers. Often this may not be long term or may be long term after several short term placements. They then go into school where the system expects them to function at the same level as other children their age. In a group setting with other children, with different abilities and adults asking you to trust them. Then there’s also the lack of therapeutic input much of the time because of funding, provision or their age. We just accept that this is the case without really giving it due consideration. I have often questioned in my training and work why it is that we don’t pause to think on this more. Because here is the reality;

A child’s world and thoughts are formed around those traumatic experiences. If a child has witnessed their mother being abused by a male then their formation is often ‘Men hurt women’. If adults neglect them, quite often the formation is ‘adults can’t be trusted’. Of course there are the exceptions but we thrust children into this huge trust exercise and expect them to believe us. We expect our caring nature to counter the narrative in their mind. After experiencing this trauma are we seriously just expecting them to get over it? How can you over come it if you’re not allowed to have it?

Now there are some schools and organisations doing some incredible work and I have seen children make outstanding progress in my own home and in my schools. There is no doubt that we must still have expectations of them and guide them towards a brighter future. But an expectation can only be successful if the child has the ability and opportunity to reach it. So we should give them that chance in every sense. I have been extended much empathy, understanding and time when I am not able to function at full capacity. Often I make mind boggling decisions that make no sense to people who do not know me or know the trauma I experienced. I once attempted to get on a plane with no luggage and hardly any money because running was the only option I thought viable. My other half and my brother, understanding how my mind often works, fortunately managed to persuade me that this wasn’t the brightest idea in the world. We seem to be getting better at accepting in our adult lives it’s not always a good idea to act upon our self talk & thoughts and we rely on other people to provide external rationality in those scenarios. But if I’m being honest, I feel that we don’t always extend the same consideration to our children. Not because we don’t want to but because the systems don’t always allow it. And we must question this, especially when it comes to traumatised children. Without going into the many elements of neuroscience, the brain is affected adversely by these experiences. We know so much about the HPA axis, how memory function can be impaired, how cortisol is constantly flooding the child’s brain and so much more.

Some of the best work I see in schools is when adults take the time to join up thinking and piece together how the child’s body is functioning, what their self talk may be and how their traumatic experiences have influenced this.

The key to approaching this in schools in my opinion is not just targeting the brain. Targeting the brain through the medium of talking therapies will very rarely work for these children. For many reasons. We know that during a time of trauma the Broca’s part of the brain responsible for language and speech, can shut down. So with this in mind it is very rare that a child will be able to articulate their experiences. Also even if they are able to talk about their trauma it is also very rare that they will be able to make the link between their traumatic experiences and their behaviour. Mainly because their behaviour is not a choice made by their conscious brain. So if we are really going to work towards effective interventions for these children we must ensure that we target the body too. My good friend Jane Evans, has done a lot of amazing work in this area and we both talk often about how the body is affected by trauma. One thing we and many others advocate is ensuring that we encourage children to breath listen to their bodies. In my last school we had so many children facing these challenges. We had to do something big and ambitious. So, with my team and a deep breath I set about ensuring that we began incorporating what have known for years but rarely acted upon and decided to take on the conventional;

First step was a ‘Breath first talk later’ mantra when it came to immediate interventions. Adults would work with young people in crisis by purely breathing first. Staff received training in this area and set about ensuring that we calmed their bodies first before even attempting to talk with them. If you read into the parasympathetic system and the role it plays in combating the fight, fight or freeze response, you will understand why this is beneficial.

Step two was introducing body based interventions such as yoga, mindfulness, running, throwing, boxing and much more. We spent time watching how children escalated and what they did with their bodies. We then incorporated where possible this type of physical behaviour into their interventions in the attempt to keep them at baseline. Whilst obviously signposting them to more effective physical stress relievers we spent time working with the young people who ran or threw things when they appeared in crisis. I was sceptical but in majority of places it really worked. We saw teenagers engaging in things like boxing, meditation and yoga regularly at certain points throughout the day to help regulate their bodies. It had the biggest impact on behaviour, wellbeing, teaching and learning and every aspect of their school lives. It was truly transformational. After these physical interventions, many children felt able to talk about their difficulties which was an added bonus.

The final step was incorporating mindfulness and meditation practices into our classrooms. At the start of the lesson, a brain break in the middle and at the end just spending a few minutes really supported the focus and self regulation of our pupils. It took some time, and there was of course difficulties in places, but our pupils understood why it was beneficial and so many engaged in it. There was of course a choice for them to do this, it wasn’t compulsory but when they saw adults role modelling this type of regulation to them, the pull was irresistible. Teenage boys with really tough backgrounds were telling me about how they were using headspace (meditation app) at home as well as in school, how they had spoken to their parents about it and one group of lads even persuaded their rugby coach to allow them to take a yoga session once a week with their team!

It took a lot of time and a lot of convincing to work in this way. But the science is fact, the results are hard data, the outcomes are not exaggerated and this theory hasn’t been plucked out of the sky. We came across something extraordinary, and guess what? It cost next to nothing.

This isn’t an intervention strategy that is exclusive to looked after or traumatised children, this speaks to every one of us. And in an age where young people need to cope with toxic stress, they have very little in the way of regulation aids. Adults and society can be guilty of Smoking, drinking, eating and numbing that feeling of stress. And it isn’t healthy is it? Plus they’d get a detention for the first two, so I guess we better show them an alternative right?

 

Precious moments

 

Ever noticed that any one that has or works with children shares the same level joy at telling stories? In teaching I notice that these stories bind us together regardless of our experience, age, subject, setting etc. Spending time with others who take joy in sharing these stories, is one of my favourite things to do, in the whole wide world (phrase pinched from a 11 year old that says it all the time!)

This year I took on a project that has impacted me greatly. To be truthful, it was viewed as an impossible task and many had gone before me. This was part of the reason I did it. I get a kick out of having a go at things that people don’t think possible, especially when it comes to young people.

These children are wonderful but have been through more than many would care to imagine. So much trauma, so many reasons not to trust adults, so much poverty and so little care shown to them.  Naturally these children had learnt to not let anyone in.

There are so many more stories I could tell you about these children but here are 2 moments from my time with them that will stay with me forever. Both heart breaking and heart warming at the same time. Names have been changed but the story remains the same.

 

Pain

Within this provision, we had many children with very complex mental health issues. Many had gone untreated for a very long time and had no access to support, or had been on waiting lists for 12+ months.

Ben, aged 14 had really struggled with depression that month. He had very little support at home and was isolated amongst his peers. We managed to engage him in a few school based interventions but nothing seemed to be working. Despite numerous calls and referrals concerning his suicidal thoughts we could get no further support other than the current provision he was accessing.

I was off site one day facilitating training. I was on my lunch at the time and doing what any other educator does during two minutes spare time they are granted – Checking emails. At the top of my inbox I had received an email from Ben, which instantly alarmed me. I opened it with haste and read through the several paragraphs he had typed. Within this email he outlined some of the difficulties he was having but in the last paragraph he wrote this;

‘I know there might be a way out eventually and someday things may seem brighter but right now, being alive is just too painful.’

I picked up the phone immediately and managed to ensure Ben was safe and looked after. I wont lie, it was very close. We almost lost him.

What would have happened if he hadn’t emailed me? Or if I wasn’t on lunch?

Those words stayed with me all night. He must have been in a really dark place and experiencing so much pain to believe that taking his own life was the easier option.

This is happening regularly. Too many young people feeling unsupported and in crisis and no agencies with available resources to pick Ben up and give him the help and expertise that he needs. There is a crisis with youth mental health which needs urgently addressing and I of course will continue to push for change, but that’s for another time.

The good news is that I could invest some time and resources in Ben. A few hours a week alongside some further psychological support that explained what was going on in his brain and how to decipher what is rational and what isn’t. And guess what? That very short and inexpensive intervention worked. There is a long way to go but he is doing so well and now running a group to help other young men talk about their mental health. He loves it. He even buys biscuits sometimes out of his own money to take to the group sessions. I asked the member of staff the other day how she was managing to facilitate it with so may boys in the group and she said; “I rarely say anything until the end of the session really. Ben leads most of it, and the others respond to him. He told me that he wants others to know its not a weakness to talk about their emotions.”

It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. I’m so proud of him.  I asked him the other day what has changed in the last few weeks. He said:

‘I have a purpose now.’

He bought me the most amazing gift the other day, which I have worn around school almost every week since. It’s the t shirt in the picture above.

 

 

Bravery

I was adamant when I took on the job that I would equip all my children with the necessary vocabulary to describe what they were feeling and experiencing. This is essential because often so many people (both adults and children) feel unable to tell anyone their story because they simply don’t know how to being, or what words to use. I know this from my own experience of trauma and depression.

I know that they rolled their eyes and slumped in their chair every morning when I facilitated discussions or exercised based on emotional literacy. I know that they thought I had lost the plot when I dressed up as a wizard and asked them to magic up (create) their own words for emotions. That happened to be one of my favourite mornings. However, I also wasn’t sure if I had managed to reach Tiffany.

Tiffany was one of the most vulnerable children in the school. I’ve lived, looked after and worked with children in the care system all my life and her story was one of the worst I’d come across. You name it, she’d experienced it. Thankfully she had just moved into a brilliant placement with two carers that were superb with her.

She trusted no one, especially males. But for some reason she didn’t call me a w***** like the other male teachers. I thought this was because I was in charge but it turns out it was because she actually enjoyed my lessons, assemblies and sessions. She of course never said this to me, this came via one of my staff so her street cred remained in tact.

Tiffany was desperately trying to cling onto her story and lets face it why wouldn’t she. She had every right to. But something else was going on with Tiffany. She had discovered some security, care and happiness. I saw her face light up when she saw her carer pick her up from school, she spoke of them with so much joy. But she just couldn’t put any faith in it. Of course I would be one of the first to tell you the reasons why this is the case with many children, but I’ll leave that to another time.

And then this happened…

Last week I gave a talk to year 10 and 11 on vulnerability. I told them that vulnerability is often a beautiful thing and allows us to connect to others in so many ways. But I also went on to say that society made us feel sometimes as though showing vulnerability made others feel uncomfortable. I remember finishing with ‘be careful who you show your vulnerabilities to, but don’t hide them for all to see and don’t let them prevent your future happiness. Because one day, they will lead you to connect with someone or something spectacular.’

I wasn’t speaking to tiffany directly at all but I hoped she heard my words. Sadly the next day she really struggled to self regulate and needed a lot of support to get through the day.

Today, was my last day and Tiffany came into my office earlier with one of her friends.

She knocked on the door and asked me if I had 5 minutes. I sat down with them both and Tiffany showed me her phone.

“Have you been told to hand it in to me?” I asked, whilst looking at my deputy to see if she knew anything about it.

“No sir, look at the words” she replied with a smile.

I looked down at the phone and she had screenshotted a quote from Bene’ Brown.

‘Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing out vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.’

I looked up and before I could say anything Tiffany said; “Sir, you said the other day that vulnerability can be a beautiful thing but that society and we often find it uncomfortable. Well I saw this and thought you might like it”

“Tiffany I’m so proud of you for reflecting on what I was talking about. Its hard to talk and think about our vulnerabilities isn’t it?”

“To be honest Mr A, I feel broken most days. But now I’m learning to embrace that vulnerability slowly”. I’ll admit, I welled up and so did her friend.

“You’ve given yourself the best possible shot at being happy. You absolutely deserve it and you’ve taught me more about being brave and gutsy than anyone else I’ve ever met. Thank you Tiffany.”

“Thanks sir, I still hate compliments though.” We both laughed loudly, and they both left through my office door.

I sat there for 5 minutes, just taking the moment in. It was genuinely one of the most heart warming and inspiring moments I have experienced in my career.

I always believe that we learn as much from children as they do from us. Tiffany and Ben have both taught me so much about bravery, resilience and empathy. And because of them I will now be sharing these moments of triumph against all the odds, for years to come.

These experiences are the reason many of us work with children. At one of the most difficult times for me personally, this experience has kept me going. I will forever be indebted to these children to entrusting me with their stories.

This is one of the many reasons why I love my job.

Merry Christmas x

 

 

 

Unforgivable

Most of you that have attended my training sessions, worked with me or even connected with myself via social media will know that the subject of looked after children is very close to my heart. I’ve lived with, looked after and worked with these children for many years now. Let’s just say that because of my experiences, I very rarely find my jaw descending towards the ground at rapid speed when I witness or read something about the system failing them.

Part of my previous role across police, education and care was to advise professionals working with looked after children on best practice and support – Things that actually worked. These workings were based on much research, experience and the often overlooked key element – Common sense. I was usually called when things were desperate.

Last week I was called to a crisis meeting regarding a child whose case I had advised on several years ago. When Stephen was first referred to me he had not been in full time education for 5 years so couldn’t read or write, had no therapeutic input so his mental health had deteriorated and had broken down several foster placements and was verging on his ninth in the space of 2 years. It’s fair to say – he was in a mess.

After much hard work, battling and various obstacles, Stephen was – in full time education with a 92% attendance rate, able to read and write and begin to attain educationally, in a stable foster placement for 2 years and beginning his therapy. Most importantly he was happy and learnt to trust adults.

So imagine my absolute horror when I get a call explaining that somehow in the space of a year all of the above had fallen through. In the words of the ed psych – ‘Mike everything is going wrong, we need you to come and fight his corner with us’.

Now I need to make it clear that this isn’t the first time that I had come across this. The pattern is all too familiar. But with this case like many others I had worked on, it was one of the few times where professionals and systems actually adapted to meet the needs of the child. A completely new model of collaboration and integrated services that I insisted on had been in place and succeeded against all the odds.

I know what you’re thinking;

‘No issues with accessing funding? No problems with the education system meeting his needs? Surely you must have waited a year for the therapy referral to go through?’ No. This was a way of working that we dream about as educators. Systems were adapted to meet Stephen’s needs, professionals actually listened and did what needed to be done. This was partly because the team around the child were quite switched on, but also because I was able to persuade them that this would actually work. And it got results – Fast! Experience taught me that understanding the cognitive processes and significant trauma that Stephen experienced had to be at the forefront of the collaboration.

The 5 point plan we put together looked like this:

  • We tailored and wrote a curriculum to fulfil needs. We moved at Stephen’s pace and communicated with him at every point. Yes he was part of his year group and would be taught some subjects with everyone else where appropriate. But other aspects such as his emotional health and literacy were seen as more important at that time.
  • Positive relationships were forged with adults that were rooted on principles of attachment.
  • I trained every adult (including his carers) working with him on trauma, attachment, behaviour and had a robust system of behavioural management that was non negotiable. Every adult had to adhere to the system including specific therapeutic language.
  • I gave every adult a complete background and full disclosure. This way everyone could see reasons behind behaviours and why it was so important to take this route.
  • Consistency and collaboration was non negotiable. Every decision about Stephen was taken by the whole team around him. No matter what area it was, everyone had an input. Specific therapy was sourced privately. Alongside the therapeutic input I led, his carers also worked therapeutically with him. This way it would be consistent and all relationships were on the same footing.

I arrive at the meeting with my usual open mind and ready to find a solution quickly for Stephen. I ran into a few familiar faces in the school foyer that I was pleased to see before the meeting and ask the question ‘what the hell happened?’ Their response was the same; ‘You’ll have to ask the social worker and local authority. Since they’ve come on board it has gone drastically wrong’. As I glanced towards the main door I could see Stephen’s wonderful and dedicated carers coming towards me.

Then it hit me. I recognise that look on their face and felt instantly sick. That look of complete desperation, anguish, frustration and worst of all – helplessness. I know it too well.

Many years ago I was in their shoes. I was screaming at the top of my lungs for someone to do something for the extremely damaged young boy that I looked after. My family and I spent years managing his trauma and trying to piece together a plan for him and never gave up. Most nights he couldn’t cope with the fact that someone cared for him and couldn’t regulate his own thoughts and emotions so he’d be outside for hours having the biggest of meltdowns. Despite all my shouting and begging for help he was soon excluded from school, his behaviour at home was getting beyond my expertise, his mental health was deteriorating rapidly and when he lost the ability to regulate it was getting harder and harder to pull him back. I sat outside his room most nights around 2am when I finally got him off to sleep and contemplated my fear for this young boy who everyone had let down.

After nine months of being in that position he finally went bang and had to be removed by police officers. This remains my single biggest regret and something that I will always carry with me. Although I later realised that there was nothing more I could have done it was still no consolation because now – he was lost. Who would tuck him in at night? Who would hug him when he couldn’t make sense of his destructive thoughts? Who could be trust? Even all these years later I still tear up thinking about it. I vowed from there on that I would never allow that to happen to another child I looked after or worked with.

Stephen’s carers knew I understood and so I hugged them both and held their hands into what I knew would be a difficult meeting.

 

Here it comes…..

We begin the meeting and I take the unusual position of the onlooker in the corner seat. The social worker goes through recent events and explains Stephen’s escalation in behaviour that has resulted in: exclusion from mainstream and now a PRU, halt in therapy and now a placement breakdown. As we go through the events in a general fashion the social worker could clearly see that I was puzzled and so asked me; ‘Mike you look like you need to say something?’ Rarely do I get an invite like that as my opinion tends to be in favour of the child and not other adults.

‘Yes I’m afraid I’m really confused. What exactly started this chain of events? You’ve told me what happened but not why.’

Instantly Stephen’s carers spoke out as if someone had finally given them permission to release their rage, sadness and frustration all at the same time. With a shaky voice and teary eyes his mother said ‘The local authority and social services removed his 121 support that he’s had for 2 years because they couldn’t find a suitable job title for him and they said that because he wasn’t actually a TA and was trained more in health that their pay scale didn’t cover his £21,000 salary.’

Que my jaw falling to the floor.

‘Is that true?’ I asked through gritted teeth.

The social worker and inclusion representative from the local authority continued to explain to me for 30 seconds that it was the case that there just wasn’t a system in place for this to happen and so they had to hire a TA when he transitioned to high school. Alongside this she also explained that they had to adapt to a new way of working for Stephen so that it would fit in line with the authorities systems and protocols because it was unprecedented and they weren’t sure who would manage them, what their title would be, what agency would supervise them etc.

Now I was livid. ‘So let me just get this straight. You are telling me that you removed the support worker that has rehabilitated Stephen and given him someone in a new environment that he has no relationship with. as well as pulling his therapeutic support at a key moment in his life, all because you don’t currently have the right system in place?’

The inclusion lead wasn’t able to look at me whilst she said that these systems were important and that we needed to ensure that Stephens care could be managed effectively on paper and on a day to day basis. I looked over at the head teacher from the mainstream school, the educational psychologist, Stephen’s carers, his former therapist and other adults shaking their heads around the table before I controlled my rage enough to ask my next question – ‘And all of these people around the table agree with this decision?’

Again they all shake their heads.  I am now unable to prevent my mouth from immediately saying what I’m thinking…

‘So you’ve gone against everyone’s opinion that knows this child inside out and has fought tooth and nail to ensure that Stephen has come so far. Not only that you’ve made a decision about a child’s future based on adult’s needs and issues relating to a professional environment that has absolutely nothing to do with Stephen. And as a consequence of your decision he has lost his education, his home, his friends, his relationships and his mental health. All in one decision that is in fact a bloody paper pushing exercise. You ought to be absolutely ashamed of yourselves’. When I looked up the shaking heads had turned to nods.

Sadly I actually said something a lot stronger than ‘bloody’ which I regret.

They responded with saying that they had found a residential placement in the midlands that would help Stephen and that it was in his best interests to pursue this. He would be starting there the week after and a care package had been agreed with them.

Again I looked around the room and many of the adults that knew Stephen were crying. I sat for a second and watched a 47 year old, 6 foot 3 former rugby player turned headmaster wipe the tears from his cheeks. The scenes were beyond belief.

We all have these moments of disbelief as professionals working with these young people. Those times where you say to yourself – This couldn’t possible happen. But here we were.

I felt sick, numb, angry, puzzled and utterly disgusted at the injustice of it all. I had been here before but I couldn’t believe that years later it was happening all over again.

‘I know that place you are sending him to. It’s crap and the rehabilitation rate tells you that, I also know that it costs over £145,000 a year to send a child there. Surely to god if you’re making this judgement on economics and systems you can see the madness in this?’

I offered to work with Stephen for free and turn things around and find a way to work this out, I then threatened to go to higher authorities and call in every favour I was owed. I continue to rant and plea to their better nature. Every trick I usually had up my sleeve I played. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

At this point Stephen’s foster mother screamed and fell from her chair to the floor in a state of despair. The anguish on her face and uncontrollable shaking meant that she had to temporarily leave the room. My heart broke for them.

Other professionals weighed in on the argument and still nothing was going to change. This was their decision and this was what Stephen’s future would look like.

My closing remarks after the hour and half drew to a close were;

‘I can’t believe that after all that progress Stephen made you still think that residential is the best thing for him? His future and possibly rest of his life is going to be written for him, yes there’s a chance he could still come out the other side but I’ve seen this before. All because the authority can’t make it work. What bloody hope has any child got that’s looked after by this authority? You’re trying to push a system of averages onto a child that is anything but the average. This is complete bull****’.

The meeting ended and out we all went. I got in my car and the same feeling I had all those years ago came flooding back.

Another child failed by the system.

We know far too much about child and cognitive development and the impact of trauma to allow this to continue to happen within the system. The significant difference in this case is that things were working, and that an alternative to the ‘system’ was in place.

And who is meant to be policing these decisions that are constantly made on an authority basis?

As I drove from the school I cast my mind back to when I went to Stephen’s end of year 5 assembly to see him pick up three awards. After the assembly when I asked him how he felt he said to me – ‘Mike, I think I’m really happy and I never thought I could do this. Everyone understands me and supports me. Thank you.’

Stephen I have requested that my objections be shown on your file like many other children before you so if you ever look at it you will see that we tried our best.

But I’m truly sorry we couldn’t stop this.

Mike x