We spoke to Anna Hutchings, head of PHSE at Gordon’s School in Surrey, about student mental health and wellbeing – and the role the school sees for digital support services like Kooth.
What mental health support do you have in place for students at Gordon’s School?
This year we’ve bought in a designated school mentor. This is something we’ve been considering for some time; we’re very pleased to have full-time support in place.
As a boarding school, sometimes students can struggle separating their school and personal lives. After being reprimanded by a teacher for the quality of their work, for example, it’s highly likely that within a couple of hours, they will be playing tennis or engaging in evening games with that same teacher.
To rely on that same teacher for their academic performance as well as their emotional wellbeing would be asking a lot from both parties.
It was important when considering the school mentor position to recruit a specialist. Our aim was to have somebody for the students who could dedicate themselves to listening and offering support. We wanted them to be able to offer targeted help, and to have an open door policy.
This approach is probably one a lot of schools are considering but, unfortunately, it really does depend on a school’s financial position.
Aside from the new mentor, what other support do you offer?
We have three counsellors who are based at our medical centre. Students have self-referral forms they can use of they wish to speak to trained counsellor.
We have also invited experts to host assemblies; Oliver Williams, as a representative of the Kooth service, has delivered mental health assemblies to most year groups. Last year during Mental Health Awareness Week, Oliver came in and did PHSE assemblies with year 10, which were very positively received.
In assemblies, students will digest information. It’s always important to try to have someone in they can learn from. Oliver was calm and conducted the students well. He was softly spoken so forced the students to listen carefully!
The message he was sharing was important for the children to hear. He talked about how easy and how important it was to access help early. He showed them a video in which a range of people talked about why they had logged in.
Do you think the students are open to digital support for their mental health and wellbeing?
Definitely. I’m a huge supporter of Kooth. I teach 16 classes of PHSE a week and I’m always signposting for support. Kooth is always my go to if anyone needs help and support.
Do you see more mental health issues today than you used to?
Yes. Exam stress is a big factor.
But my biggest question about mental health and wellbeing is around why we’re seeing increased interest or need for support. Is it that we’re talking more? Years ago people weren’t as forthcoming. We would all have been cautious about saying there was a mental health problem.
My worry is now that maybe we – and the students – use terminology like ‘anxious’ or ‘depressed’ and make more of an issue of it.
More work needs to be done around the language we use to talk about about our feelings. We’ve got more people talking, which is fantastic, but now we need to think about the language we use to describe our feelings or our state. It’s the difference between having a bad day – which happens to everyone – and really experiencing depression.
How are young people talking about the ways they get help or feel better?
I have a couple of students who are keen to promote the services or apps they find helpful. A lot choose to keep that private and aren’t comfortable to talk in public.
Around exam time in particular we see stress levels rising; students will talk about their need for support or their worries around their results.
Is your aim to help students help themselves to manage stress and to manage their own wellbeing?
Yes. All the things we’re doing at school is to really try to encourage the students to look after themselves. Having a supplementary online services to reinforce that message can only be a good thing.
I think it’s important we don’t hide what’s available. We can’t assume that just because we’re doing assemblies on mental health that it’s going to give the confidence to a child to talk to a member of staff. The biggest barrier is getting the words out into the open. An anonymous service like Kooth can help with that. Some students may not be able to talk, but may be able to type how they’re feeling.
Kooth can help bring them back in – coach them to ask for a bit of help.
Arete Associate Assistant Head
Director of Character Education & Student Leadership
Head of PSHE
Gordon’s School, Surrey