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In A Stigma-Ridden Culture, Children Must Learn Emotional Vocabulary [Guest Post]

If you are reading this, you have a brain.

Your brain currently exists somewhere on a spectrum of mental health. That means that, regardless of who you are, you have a mental health.

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding mental health is that it is only relevant to people who have a diagnosed mental illness. This is, to some extent, owing to how all-encompassing the term ‘mental health’ is. We’d never say ‘physical health’ and expect to be understood. A broken leg is very different from a migraine is very different from cancer, in just the same way stress is different from depression or psychosis.

We often wait until symptoms of a mental illness appear before we give any consideration to our mental health. Yet, just as there are things all of us can do to provide a basic level of care to our bodies (exercise regularly, eat good food, get enough sleep), there are the mental health equivalents.

Over the past decade, I’ve been travelling the UK’s schools and colleges working with 12-18 year olds on a range of issues relating to wellbeing, including body image, self-harm, and gender stereotyping. Since 2012, I’ve done this as one third of The Self-Esteem Team  (pictured below), and we now offer a range of award-winning classes on mental health and exam stress in addition to the above. The classes are designed to be universally relevant, to draw in the 9 in 10 who won’t statistically have a diagnosed mental illness but might still be having their academic potential and quality of life impacted by common mental and emotional health struggles.

My experience has taught me that there are three skills which are essential to basic mental wellbeing and that they are universally relevant. None of the techniques I recommend below would be a substitute for medical care for a mental illness. But, they might prevent emotional distress, lessen low-level mental health issues (the ones that don’t meet the criteria for CAMHS and so many teachers are left struggling with) or help you catch a mental illness early (when it is eminently more treatable). They’re also relatively easy to incorporate into the culture of a school, with the right support from leadership.

Identifying the Stress Bucket Valve

Sport, Arts, and Drama are often considered to be ‘optional extras’ within education – especially under the current government. However, these activities are, in reality, essential for our mental health and, therefore, our survival.

Charity Mental Health First Aid England describes how each human being has a ‘stress bucket’ – a metaphorical space in their heads which is incrementally filled by dealing with everyday challenges such as academic pressure, problems in peer groups, or family issues. The size of the bucket, and therefore capacity for dealing with stress, differs from person to person, but it is essential for everyone to have a tap to release tensions. If the stress bucket overflows, it can lead to stress, panic or anxiety.

A sure-fire way to release everyday tensions is to lose ourselves in a creative endeavour, whether that’s writing, painting, dancing, or another artistic pursuit. This allows us to express ourselves, release tension, and can be an effective emotional outlet for those who have difficulty articulating their feelings in words.

Helping children discover their creative passion and giving them permission to carve regular time in their day to pursue it (even if it’s exam season) should be a key objective for every healthy school.

Critical Thinking

The modern world constantly finds ways to bash children and young people’s self-esteem. Low self-esteem is one of the primary diagnostic criteria for the four most common mental illnesses in under 21s (which are anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders).

To protect teenager’s self-esteem in the digital age, it’s essential that they are taught to think critically. The Self-Esteem Team do this in our classes by looking at agendas – whether that’s advertising, ‘free’ pornography, or the actions of others on social media. Promoting discussions around web content, pictures in magazines, or even politics, and encouraging children and young people to have their own opinions, allows them to question prevailing social narratives around gender, sexuality, success, and beauty, which often impact them perversely.

Normalising feeling talk

From an early age, society subconsciously tells children that their feelings aren’t valid. Girls are told to stop being ‘drama queens’ and boys to ‘man up’. Adults also have a tendency to assume that a lack of communication means everything is fine, because if they had a problem, they’d tell us; right? But there should be conversations which bridge the gap between silence and admitting to having a problem.

It’s a huge thing, in our stigma-ridden culture, to confess to struggling with your mental health, but it’s much easier in an environment where everyone has been encouraged and given permission to discuss their emotions. Children need to be taught emotional vocabulary from an early age.

One primary school that The Self-Esteem Team recently visited demonstrated to primary school children what was happening in their brain when they were angry by using glitter in a jar. The children, who were only aged five, then talked about experiencing ‘glitter brain’. Since they were able to communicate how they were feeling, they were less likely to lash out or have a temper tantrum.

In secondary schools, it’s important that teens realise that talking about feelings isn’t something you just do with the school counsellor when times are tough. Many schools have found safe and innovative ways to implement peer-mentoring systems. In the classroom, teachers can (and in my experience, do) strive to create an environment where everyone’s opinion is heard and valid, there is no question too ‘stupid’ to ask, and no one is ridiculed for expressing how they feel.


Natasha Devon MBE is a writer, campaigner & pundit. She is co-founder of the Self Esteem Team (until Sept 2017) & the Body Gossip Education Programme, both working in schools to help teenagers, their parents, and teachers with mental health & body image challenges. She advises politicians on mental health, education, and young people’s rights. In 2016, the Sunday Times and Debrett’s named Natasha one of the 20 most influential people in education.

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