Supporting Children’s Mental Health in School

by | Apr 21, 2022

Thomas Freeney

Part One – Anxiety Formations

Ex-teacher Thomas Freeney, now Research and Development Executive at MeeToo Education, explains how to spot the early signs of anxiety and depression.

Learning how to support children and their mental health at school and at home can be pretty daunting. It’s hard to handle your own needs, never mind your children’s. In Part 1 of this interview, Tilly Roberts talks to Thomas Freeney about some helpful insights for parents, carers, and teaching staff.

 “It’s all about building a relationship based on empathy, respect, and consistency.”

Previously a secondary school Science teacher in Southampton, Thomas Freeney is now the Research and Development Executive at MeeToo Education, a free and anonymous peer support app that offers a judgement-free space to people around the country.

During Thomas’ time as a Science teacher, he was able to help many of his students open up about their mental health issues and direct them to the right support for their needs. As time went on, Thomas became a valued point of contact for students who wanted to talk about what was going on for them. Thomas has agreed to share his personal experience and knowledge of the techniques that work to support young people’s mental health.

Currently, Thomas is applying for a doctorate in Educational Psychology. He hopes to bring about positive changes to teacher training and educational policies, in order to create a supportive and healthy working environment for staff and students. 

 

Thank you for joining me today, Thomas.

Thomas: You’re very welcome.

 

It can be challenging for some parents and carers to spot the early signs of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses in their children. This can be due to many reasons as life is already hectic and complicated. So, what are the signs that caregivers can look out for to put support in place and prevent further symptoms from developing?

Well, […] as a parent it is often difficult to see the changes since you are with your child every day, and the changes are normally gradual. A sudden change can happen, but this is normally a response to a trauma rather than anxiety. You need to look out for your child’s withdrawal from the things they would typically do, and for more subdued responses to exciting events.

One of the straightforward ways to spot this change in a child is to observe their reaction if you ask them about climbing a tree or something similar. Do they worry about the risk? Although it is to our advantage to be aware of hazards, looking for them in everyday things that are not actually that risky can signify anxiety formation.

 

I understand; after seven years of trying, I am still slow to recognise anxiety formation in myself. I think it was because I grew up around anxious and stressed adults.

Yes, the young person’s home environment can be as stressful as a new school. One of the most challenging things you can do as a caregiver is to look at yourself to see how you’re feeling daily. Are you anxious? Are you sharing your stresses with your child? Young children are very impressionable, and a lot of the early onset of anxiety can come from exposure to anxiety in others – a fearful reaction to otherwise healthy or ordinary things.

It can be easy to forget your children have their own stresses. They’re experiencing things for the first time and developing perspectives, but everything feels important and real to them. My advice is to make space as a parent for you to vent to friends or partners. You can let your kids know you’re stressed and be honest if they ask, but they should not be your first port of call.

 

If your child is showing symptoms of depression or anxiety, what steps can parents take to help or support?

The first port of call would be the NHS website which has a lot of information for parents – also, there are some brilliant blog posts on the internet. For those who would like to be better versed in support methods, there are a host of books on the market that will be able to give you case-specific information. But if you are worried, the school will have a position filled by a SENCo, a Special Educational Needs Coordinator. This person is usually very in the loop. However, they are very busy people because they cater to the neediest children. The support on offer will vary from location to location; some schools are fortunate. They have counsellors on-site who can help support the child and work through the issues with them. But not every school has that on offer.

This is where the work I do with MeeToo comes in useful, as we can offer support to those who can’t access it in school or outside school. Some charities offer lots of specialised support like Beat, Grief Encounter, The National Bullying Helpline, Jigsaw, and Anxiety UK.

Suppose you notice that one of your child’s friends is showing symptoms of depression or anxiety. What can you do?

This situation can be tough to navigate because you want to avoid making a parent feel attacked. Because for many parents, hearing their child has anxiety or depression can feel like a failing on their part – which is very hard for them to come to terms with.

But suppose you do see that one of your child’s friends is experiencing some form of depression or anxiety. In that case, it may be that the parent is aware of it, and they are doing something to help.

However, if you do feel you need to step in or offer some support, I would recommend raising why the concern has arisen. Talk to the parent about what you’ve noticed and help them to build a bigger picture.

If that parent still isn’t acting, and you are actually in fear for that child’s safety, you can speak to the school, ideally to the DSL, the Designated Safeguarding Lead. You can also phone the police (999) if you are worried that the child has taken steps to end their life or is in imminent danger; or 111 to get through to the local police in your area to raise your concern.

Although it is helpful to be aware of a child’s mental health needs, it is also wise to be cautious of labelling behaviours. So, are there any tips you can give to parents and school staff to start conversations without pressure or judgement?

So, it is crucial to refrain from labelling standalone behaviours or short-term changes. One of the things you need to be careful with is not talking about it as a permanent state – so not saying “You are depressed”, because for a child, that brings into play their understanding, or often misunderstanding, of that term. They could feel shame for how they are feeling because of the stigma that still exists. Feeling anxious and depressed is a part of what it means to be human, so we need to be gentle and steer away from treating it as a huge scary problem.

I recommend creating space for a conversation by simply asking “How are you?” and keeping it really broad. See what comes up, remembering that it is crucial to listen to how the child responds.

If you have noticed that your child is anxious, you can ask them if anything has been worrying them recently. Or, if you notice a change in their appetite, you can talk to them about whether they’re enjoying the food you’re cooking.

It’s important to focus on getting your child to open up without laying any sense of blame or pressure to perform on them. – because one of the real dangers is asking someone why they’re feeling a certain way without talking through what things are bringing it about. If you make it feel as though it’s their fault and their problem, it can feel quite overwhelming for the child, and they may shut down.

 

What do you remember about your time at school, and why have you decided to pursue a career in Educational Psychology?

I remember pressure from all angles. There was a massive drive in my education for us to conform and succeed academically. This meant that some genuinely brilliant people were viewed as unintelligent or less worth the time, and I hated that. It’s part of why I went into teaching; I wanted to ensure that my students had someone who supported them as people first instead of grades.

I’m passionate about Educational Psychology because I know the doors that education can open, and the idea that those doors would be closed to anyone terrifies and upsets me. Every person has so much they can contribute and add to the world, and they all deserve support to get to that place.

Thomas, thank you so much for talking with me today. I look forward to our next discussion about how to build consistent lines of communication between children and adults.

If you are looking for a free and accessible mental health support service, you can find out more about MeeToo Education and other services on their website.

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