Against the backdrop of growing concerns over the mental health of young people, one Yorkshire school is tackling issues head on with a wellness centre. Laura Drysdale reports.
Mollie Wilson was in her second year of high school when she experienced her first panic attack.
“I was on a school trip and I got really bad heat stroke,” the 17-year-old recalls. “I wasn’t with my family and that really freaked me out. I couldn’t breathe and then I couldn’t see. I passed out, I was hyperventilating and I was really, really sick.”
Mollie’s journey through education has been challenging since; she has struggled with anxiety, at times finding it difficult to eat and sleep.
“You get so trapped in your head. Imagine you’re on a rollercoaster and you’ve got to the top and suddenly there’s that feeling of going down....that feeling, your heart beats up in your throat, you can’t breathe, you’re so consumed by it. It’s terrifying. Then you get to the panic attack.
“I think my biggest one was in Year 10 and I don’t know why I got so upset but I did and I couldn’t get out of the house. I couldn’t see people. I just wanted to be alone in my room and the thought of going outside would make me physically sick.
“My mum ended up putting me on Complan (nourishment products) because I wouldn’t eat. I couldn’t eat at all. You’re constantly tense and your heart’s being squeezed. You can’t breathe and you can’t sleep properly. Your thoughts take over.”
According to children’s mental health charity Young Minds, as many as one in six young people experience anxiety at some point. Mollie now hopes to use her experiences to help her peers, through a new role as her school’s first Wellbeing Prefect.
She took up the position at Harrogate Ladies’ College, an independent school for girls aged two to 18 and boys aged two to 11, after the unveiling of its pioneering wellness centre in October.
Thought to be one of the first of its kind in the country, the facility provides a space dedicated to the mental and physical wellbeing of students.
“Children do struggle with life,” says college principal Sylvia Brett. “The wellness centre is here because we want to help our children to cope. The pressures of university entrance, debt and so forth are always going to be there, but we want to help our pupils to have strategies in place.”
The centre offers activities including mindfulness training, yoga and stress management as well as providing nutritional advice and access to counselling. It also serves as a health centre, with a clinic staffed by nurses.
For Year 13 student Mollie, who has received counselling at the school, it is a welcome addition - and one she hopes will empower young people to seek support if they need it.“I’m proud to say that we’ve got it because people can go there or they can come and talk to me or go to the counsellor,” she says.
“Before, especially for me, I was like ‘I don’t know what to do, how am I supposed to do this?’ But now it’s there and even if you’re just worried a little bit, there’s somebody there that you can go and talk to.”
Mollie, from Huddersfield, says she had little support with her anxiety from her previous school and that doctors repeatedly told her she was okay, despite her concerns and experiences. And it seems she is not alone.
Last month, a report by the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said most young people with a mental health condition do not get the treatment they need, with some turned away from NHS services because their condition “is not considered severe enough to warrant access to over-stretched services”.
Its report said: “In 2017–18 only three in ten children and young people with a mental health condition received NHS-funded treatment, and many more faced unacceptably long waits for treatment.”
Though it recognised that new ways of supporting young people’s mental health through prevention and early intervention were being developed it said urgent headway was needed, with one in eight five to 19-year-olds now thought to have a diagnosable mental health condition and 5.8 per cent of five to 15-year-olds suffering from an emotional disorder.
The wellness centre at Harrogate Ladies’ College has been established against the backdrop of these growing concerns.
“Every school should have things already in place for people who are suffering,” says Richard Farnan, the school’s director of wellness. “We had access to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) already. We were equipped to deal with problems as they arise.
“But for me, that’s not enough. We need to be working to actively make sure that they don’t descend into that in the first place.”
The idea is that the centre is for everyone, not just “a first aid measure” for those suffering from mental health issues, he says. “We need to make sure that young people have their own coping strategies they can use before problems escalate...The idea behind the centre is that we’re trying to be as preventative as possible rather than just fighting fires.”
The role that schools play was acknowledged in the Government’s 2017 Green Paper on transforming children and young people’s mental health provision, which said teachers are “often on the front line” of recognising and supporting a young person’s mental health.
It has pledged to commit £300m of funding to develop links between schools and health services, supporting educational establishments to identify and train a mental health lead and introducing mental health support teams. It plans to begin pilots this year.
Back in Harrogate, the wellness centre is already having an impact. It was officially opened with a launch day involving talks on everything from LGBT-issues to exam anxiety and the importance of sleep - and head of PSHE Laura Bookes said the results were instant. “That same afternoon a girl approached me and said ‘thank you so much for putting that together because it has given me the confidence to go to my friends and tell them I’m bisexual’. In that sense it was showing instant results.”
“I’ve had quite a few people say ‘well I’ve got this place to go now where I can relax, I can feel I’ve got somewhere to go when I get stressed’,” says Mollie, who is studying A-levels in Arts, Maths and Photography and hopes to be a landscape architect. She is also feeling the benefits too. “I’m proud of becoming the first Wellness Prefect. It is making what I’ve been through something I’m proud of, that I can say I’ve overcome this time in my life and I can cope with it and I can help other people.”
Mrs Brett hopes the centre will stand for the important of wellbeing for young people on a regional and national scale. “People often say ‘it takes a village to bring up a child and I think it is that sense of working together to improve all around wellness that will move us into a hopefully better future.”