Mental health day at Sheffield school gives pupils the tools they need to survive Year 11

From L-R Patrick Johnston from Place 2 Be, Deana Puccio from RAP Project, Maz Udall from Self Esteem Team and Cathy Walker, Director of Sixth Form and organiser of the conference. Picture: Andy Brown
From L-R Patrick Johnston from Place 2 Be, Deana Puccio from RAP Project, Maz Udall from Self Esteem Team and Cathy Walker, Director of Sixth Form and organiser of the conference. Picture: Andy Brown
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With looming GCSEs, the pressure to fit in and maintain social media profiles that depict an impossibly cool life - 15 is not an easy age to be.

With that in mind, Sheffield High School for Girls gave their Year 10s the opportunity to take stock, and give some serious consideration to the way in which they take care of their physical and mental health in a day designed to equip them with the tools and strategies they need to make it through the ever-stressful Year 11.

Self-esteem, body image, negative and damaging thought processes, stress, anxiety, lack of motivation and the impact of social media and constant communication were among the topics tackled head-on by a range of speakers at the event, entitled: Warning! This day will be good for your health.

"Life doesn't have to be Instagram perfect," Dr Patrick Johnston, Director of Learning and Practice at national charity, Place2Be told the year group, as he stressed the importance of approaching problems with mental health in the same way you would physical health.

He added: "Most of us go through ups and downs with our health. It's also normal to have ups and downs with your mental health, they follow the same trajectory."

Dr Johnston continued by giving the group his top tips for mental health and well being which included taking time for yourself, being present - which may mean taking a step back from 'addictive' social media platforms, spending time listening to what your mind and body is telling you, being listened to and recognising unhealthy relationships.

Commenting on what he hoped the girls would take away from his session, Dr Johnston said: "It's about feeling comfortable that they can openly and supportively mention the words 'mental health' without feeling stigmatised. I think what the school is trying to do is bring mental health into the mainstream and help them to realise that mental health is a spectrum that everyone is on."

One of the most eye-opening parts of the event was the 'gagging your gremlins' session, run by actress, actress and writer, Stacey Sampson, during which pupils were asked to write down the meanest thought they had ever had about themselves and pass them on to be read out.

Utterances of 'I want to kill myself,' 'I'm fat,' 'I hate my body,' 'I'm not good enough,' 'I'm a disappointment to my family,' were repeated over and over again, highlighting the universal nature of negative - and in some cases, damaging, thought processes.

Stacey then encouraged the group to give their negative internal voice a name, in a bid to distance themselves from it.

The group had fun with the activity, with one girl saying she was going to name her negative voice 'the self-esteem cruncher', while another called hers 'Billy the horse'.

"I hope they will be able to take away a more positive approach to self care. It's too easy to listen to our negative thoughts," said Stacey.

The group were also asked to consider how people can suffer in silence with their mental health, during a session from Maz Udall from a group of educators called the Self-Esteem Team.

Maz explained how during her teenage years she achieved impressive exam results at the same time as she competed in national and international taekwondo tournaments, racking up gold medals and a world title.

She told the group that the way she was perceived through the prism of her achievements meant that she felt alone when dealing with pressure, panic attacks and anxiety, the culmination of which resulted in her attempting to take her own life.

"The reason I go into schools and talk about mental health, is because you don't know what someone is going through. I was a high-flyer, and no-one knew what I was going through because I looked happy," she said.

Maz then went on to speak about different personality types and how this can affect what is likely to be the best method to combat feelings of low motivation and stress.

Deana Puccio from the RAP project delivered an insightful talk about body image and how what we see online impacts on our perception of ourselves, and on our feelings about our appearance in particular.

She said: "The goal is to get these young women to critically examine what they are being shown in the media, with shows such as Love Island, and how they are being manipulated to feel a certain way about themselves and their bodies. With young people, and young women in particular, there's a mental health crisis which is manifesting itself through things like eating disorders, self-harm and depression."

After working on their mental health in the morning, pupils then took part in a range of physical activities including inflatables, a dance class, a yoga class, a nature trail walk and a park run.

Director of Sixth Form, Cathy Walker, said: "My impression of the day is that it has been a great success! The students have already been overwhelmingly positive in their feedback – this from teens, who are not always the most effusive or enthusiastic! So I hope they have brought some tips and strategies away with them for dealing with life when it gets tricky. If nothing else, we have got them thinking and talking about mental health and that is crucial in breaking down any remaining stigma around this topic."