Over the past five years working as a young person’s counsellor I have come to recognise how much our young people are being shaped and impacted on by their school environment. Sadly more often than not their deteriorating mental ill-health is directly linked to the school system and the ever increasing focus on academic outcomes.
Through 1:1 counselling I’ve come across countless insightful, emotionally articulate and creative young people who feel invalidated by their school experience and struggle not to fall in to a trap of negative self-esteem. At times these young people are savvy to the fact that it is not so much their failing but a failing of the system itself, however they feel adrift in knowing how to change their circumstances and often feel alone in what they are experiencing.
My work frequently involves supporting teenagers to affirm and validate themselves for who they are regardless of the messages they are getting in their learning environments. That they can still have a successful, happy and meaningful life even if they don’t get 9’s at GCSE! The reality that so many teenagers feel so negatively about themselves because they are being judged predominantly on their test results is both maddening and saddening. What more can be done I ask myself to support this next generation to flourish and to grow in to the fullest expressions of themselves…?
I write this now because the tide seems to be ever increasing. The number of teenagers coming through my counselling room with stress, anxiety and depression is growing. Many are internalising the idea that they are ‘not good enough’ and this at times is leading to destructive and self-harming behaviours.
Environments impact on us, and my real sense is something fundamental needs to be addressed within the system if we are to begin to turn the tide on our young people’s deteriorating mental health. As adults more often than not have a choice about whether we stay in a job or move on. Most young people don’t have this option with school.
I can teach the teens I see strategies to help them manage their anxiety, stress and depressive feelings; provide a place for them to feel heard, validated and understood but if each day they have to get up and go in to an environment that doesn’t affirm a large percentage of who they are we are both fighting a loosing battle.
I am witness to such maturity, wisdom and self awareness in the young people I come in to contact with through my work. What shines through in the opportunity to be seen for who they are truly inspires and heartens me. Surely there is a way we can provide spaces and adapt our schools to allow more young people to be recognised and validated beyond just their intellectual capacity?
The future we are heading towards is an unknown in so many ways, the jobs of tomorrow will little resemble the jobs of today yet we continue to push our children through an antiquated system designed for an old paradigm. Climate change, austerity and an uncertain job market surely means the focus needs to be much more on future-proofing our young, supporting them to find ways to foster resilience and nurture their self-esteem and creativity as opposed to the regurgitation of facts?!
I don’t think I as an individual have an answer to this. It just felt important to bring to the fore what i’m experiencing in my work in respect and acknowledgement of the many young voices i’ve heard over the years. Facilitating ‘conversations that matter’ in the counselling room can go some way towards supporting them to gain perspective on the challenges they are experiencing, helping them find ways to get through school with their self-esteem more intact, but I desire more than this for them. I would like to advocate for more opportunities to have meaningful conversations with our young generation. Whether that be through the practice of active listening on a one to one basis or through school based focus groups that allow young people to feed in to the re-shaping of their education to cater more holistically to them as developing human beings.
If you are a parent and feel called to action I would really encourage you to write to the headteacher of your local school with your concerns asking how pastoral and mental-health support is funded? You could also ask for evidence of ACTIVE school strategies (strategies that encourage arts/apprenticeships and vocational learning), as a counterpoint to league table and grade expectations.
Similarly write to your local MP and or the press expressing your concerns; for at the end of the day the well-being of our young really is a collective responsibility!
Nikki Simpson is an accredited person centred counsellor working in private practice. She holds a post qualifying diploma in counselling children and adolescents and has formerly held the post of school counsellor in a Gloucestershire school.
When we think of mindfulness many people make the association with sitting in meditation but the essence of being mindful is more about developing the capacity to bring our focused attention to whatever it is we are doing, whether that’s washing the dishes, brushing our teeth or eating diner:
By coming to notice our mind chatter we can begin to drop in to a place that exists below the surface.
Dr Dan Siegel eminent psychologist and author of Brainstorm The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain uses the metaphor of ‘the sea within’ to explain how mindfulness works. On the surface there may be a storm blowing, large waves abounding but if you delve down below surface level at the depths exists a calmness and stillness. Just as when we pay attention to the surface of our mind we can get swept away by our thoughts and feelings – by dropping anchor through a mindfulness practice we can gain access to the calm depths that simultaneosuly exist.
When I work with young people I often introduce different mindfulness based practices to support them to access this calm place, a place of stillness from which they can observe their thoughts and feelings without judgement.
The benefits of developing this kind of presence can be far reaching and can act as an antidote to the stressful lives many of us lead.
Over the years I have found taking photographs to be a mindfulness practice that really works for me. Combining being out in nature, walking and creativity supports me to drop in to the place of stillness beyond the mind chatter helping me to regulate and to turn the volume down on the demands of external stimuli.
Taking time to look more closely at the world around me, at the detail and the interplay of light and shadow brings a different perspective in to focus. The resulting images are less the goal than the practice of slowing down, being present, and looking.
The term ‘down the rabbit hole’ goes some way to describing what this activity elicits for me. Time out in a busy schedule to practice being. A way of pressing pause on the adrenalised ‘doing’ of life.
I would really encourage anyone interested in mindfulness or creative mindful practices to open the door to further exploration of what this practice can bring to your life. Below are some tips to help you get going:
Observe before you take the picture – ask yourself what descriptive words come to mind in relation to what you are seeing?
Stop and breathe – put your hand on your belly for a moment andbring yourself in to the present moment by breathing slowly in and out through your nose, feeling your abdomen rise and fall under your hand.
Focus on colour, shapes, patterns – look beyond the obvious to the more subtle interplay of shapes, colours and patterns, there is so much more detail in everything
The journey is the destination- think about this as an exercise in slowing down and developing presence as opposed to all about the finished product.
Creative practices are often overlooked as an antidote to stress but if we engage creatively without expectation of a particular outcome the process itself can help us feel to more relaxed, present and engaged with the world.
Nikki Simpson is a Counsellor and Visual Artist who works in private practice with teenagers and adults. Alongside her therapy work she enjoys spending time in nature, dancing and taking photographs.
Most of us have about the house a first aid kit in case of emergency – a kit containing plasters, badges, antiseptic and the like. But how many of us have thought about creating an emotional first aid kit?
When I work with young people in counselling I often talk about the value of creating a first aid kit for their emotions. Thinking together about things that help or could help when they feel stressed, worried or low.
As as adult who was once a teenager myself I clearly remember days when I felt down, self conscious and anxious. My tendency in these situations was to end up dwelling and ruminating and ultimately feeling worse about about myself.
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) there is a useful diagram referred to as the thoughts, feelings and behaviour cycle. What we think about ourselves in a situation has an effect on how we feel which dictates our reaction. If we feel low, our thoughts about ourselves are often negative and our resulting behaviour is likely to reflect this.
Thinking together with a teenager about the challenges they are facing in their lives and the ways they currently deal with their feelings is a starting point. If they are stuck in the cycle we might think about what they would like to be different, focusing on what makes them feel good about themselves.
I often introduce the idea of the emotional first aid kit at this point*. Does the young person have any hobbies, what activities do they enjoy – how do they feel when they are doing these, who do they trust to talk to? What do they do to relax? What makes them laugh? Are there any special places they spend time in. After a short while of discussion there are usually a good number of ideas that help; from talking to a friend, drawing, listening to music, to going out in nature, cooking, having a bath and watching funny clips on Youtube!
Alongside ideas that are specific to the young person’s interests I also may also introduce mindfulness and grounding techniques and quite often these end up on the emotional first aid kit too. Once the kit is completed the young person may take a photo of it on their phone – ensuring they have it to hand to refer to in case of emergency!
Why not have a go creating one for yourself!
*From Margot Sunderland’s brilliant book Draw on Your Emotions.
“11-21 year olds are exposed to self harm images online in alarming numbers and causing many to consider hurting themselves, according to a poll commissioned ahead of Self-Harm Awareness Day on Sunday March 1st ~ NSPCC (For the full article click here )
I have been made aware of this trend of late by young people that I work with and it’s certainly saddening. I understand young people’s motivation to connect with others and find support and solace but when other people’s images make you want to hurt yourself more! Accepting the prevalence of self-harm amongst young people seems paramount right now, for many parents and carers this is a big ask. This is where counsellors and other trained professionals can help. Supporting your child/ teenager without judgement to explore the reasons why they may hurting themselves can allow for change to occur and healthier ways of expressing to emerge.
Gloucestershire also run a free support service Glos self harm network: The text line number is 07537 410022, the helpline phone number is 0808 801 0606, and access to the online support is through the website www.rethink.org/glosselfharm –
Raising awareness of this trend seems paramount in terms of counteracting it. Please share.