Making sense of the headlines on girls’ mental health
Perhaps, like me you were alarmed last week to see many papers and educational supplements led a piece following a report from STEER Education highlighting grave concerns for girls’ and young women’s mental wellbeing following the pandemic. It was concerning to see headlines referring to girls’ wellbeing “on a knife edge”, that “perfectionism runs rife” and similar, dare I say hyperbolic, strap lines across some media outlets. As part of a dedicated pastoral team at SHS, the report caught my attention and prompted a point of reflection. We know as leaders in girls’ education how hard the pandemic has been for girls, but we also know that the tendencies highlighted in the report are not new. We have sought to highlight and counteract those tendencies for many years so what should we take from this report and what are we at SHS doing proactively to support our girls and young women as we emerge from the pandemic?
The articles all pointed out the focus on the perfectionist tendencies which some girls can exhibit, with a reference to a potential “hidden middle” of young women in school who mask these feelings and are not seeking help or support.
We know from long experience and prominent research including excellent books such as “Curse of the Good Girl” by Rachel Simmons, that perfectionism was a tendency that some girls displayed long before we had heard of Covid 19. So too was the tendency among girls to put on a brave face and conceal their true feelings so as not to disappoint or upset others. At SHS we’ve long recognised the need for proactive pastoral care that encourages girls to speak up and out about their feelings. Unfortunately, the pandemic has amplified many of those tendencies and it would be naïve to believe that pastorally the impact of the pandemic is not still with us; however, reading the articles on the report on Monday, I could recognise a sense of the wider educational panorama and felt heartened that we are working effectively to make the most available for every girl with us at SHS. We know that perfectionism, exam anxiety and worry exist – it is what we do here to counteract this that is key, and it is crucial that this involves working with parents as a team effort – and providing tools for our students to face, manage and in time overcome these problems.
As a school we want to create as many avenues for students as possible – it is important to me and my colleagues that every student be “seen”, to know that they are valued and to have the sense of security so they can share these feelings with us. We work hard to support students to thrive and be resilient as they navigated a changing educational landscape; through our assemblies, Climb time session, check in ‘pulse’ surveys, our wellbeing online tutor times and more. Peer mentoring from the Sixth form for example has enabled students to talk to peers in school as well as our pastoral staff, and this has led to wonderful conversations through student voice, such as student council on how our community feels and is responding now to our “new/old normal”. Communication of concerns, sharing and discussing mental health without stigma have all made big leaps in society through the influence of high-profile individuals in the media particularly through the pandemic, and this has been mirrored in our community in school.
The most important relationship we have for our young people is between home, student, and school – nurturing open lines of communication are vital so that no student is “hidden” or feels that they need to mask how they feel. Close dialogue with parents is both our secret weapon and superpower in pastoral work to support girls’ mental wellbeing. A united approach helps girls in making steps towards sharing and vocalising what they need without worrying about what others may need / that the “mask” needs to be in place to be liked or valued. We work hard to create a culture in which our girls and young women are valued in and of themselves, without a need to be perfect or the finished article – which is a powerful act of permission to be oneself and a release at times from a sense of burden or expectation.
In addition to other support offered, we often talk in school alongside our initiative the Positive Project about useful/unhelpful worries as one way to show that some worries or anxieties are helpful, some are not and how to recognise these in a healthy way. Equally, I think it is imperative that we role model and discuss that not all stress is “bad”. Exam anxiety is part of the surge of energy and adrenaline for any high-stakes activity; it is not “bad” in of itself, unless left unchecked so it needs to be normalised and talked about in a measured ways for safe and secure exam preparation. I am sure that there will no doubt be real stress points or flares as the exams approach, but this is a “normal” stress to experience and a rite of passage to some extent. But where some of the points in the report are left to fester – for example perfectionism – this can be a real concern if not spotted, brought into the open and supported through.
Sadly, the rise nationally in the number of referrals for young people requesting access to mental health services beyond the school gates has continued apace despite lockdown periods having ended. The legacy of pandemic, loss and bereavement remains, but I truly believe that there is much to be hopeful for: our young women are talking to our teams in school more than ever, we have a dedicated & talented range of staff leading on mental wellbeing, our Climb programme is building from strength to strength, the wealth of opportunities in Period X is phenomenal. Our SHS specialist staff – our school counsellor and school nurse – are a real asset to our overall provision, and furthermore we have had more colleagues trained in Mental Health First Aid, Talking and Drawing therapies, Positive Project and the “No worries” programme, to name a few interventions which we can draw on as well as approaching our partners outside of school.
Above all we know girls and this knowledge leaves us well placed to deal with the fall out of the pandemic. It is moreover worth noting that young people are incredibly resilient and purposeful: most of our students in our community are not only working on but actively embrace a growth mindset and willingly seek out challenges and opportunities to help them to develop beyond the confines of our lockdown world of the last two years.
How then to talk or to support young women and girls currently? A top tip for approaching this with students if you do have a concern as a parent is to consider how you frame your question from the outset. Perhaps if you can adapt your initial question of “how was your day?” (which may receive the ‘all is fine’ response), try to ask specifics – questions that can lead to more particular details and then lead onto a dialogue where she may begin to share a hint of the type of concerns mentioned above. By asking “what lessons did you have today?” or “what did you do in x lesson?”, the opening is then there for your daughter to tell you something more. I would also suggest if you can have a discussion while doing an activity – it could be walking the dog, for example – then the talk will flow more naturally and can elucidate more information than a direct chat in the car for instance. Our human hardwiring to walk and talk or chat whilst engaged in an activity is a very beneficial way to gently prise information out of the most uncommunicative teenage ‘rock’! I would furthermore suggest the excellent Young Minds resource https://www.youngminds.org.uk/parent/ which has a wealth of resources and parent information available 24/7. If you have any concerns about your daughter’s wellbeing, please do contact your child’s form tutor or Head of Stage directly, or contact myself on firstname.lastname@example.org
So, whilst the picture nationally remains a stormy one, I very much believe that we should temper the findings of reports such as these with our own local knowledge, our self-belief in our community and our superpower of our relationship with our families: with this, our young people will be in the best place to weather the aftermath of this storm.
Mrs Emma Owen Davies
Deputy Head Pastoral