by Chris Williamson
Portsmouth Grammar School launched its first Mental Health Week to coincide with a national drive to promote good mental health. Given how much it has been in the news recently, with the Royal Family, Lady Gaga, Andrew Flintoff, Professor Green and James Haskell, to name but a few, producing videos, discussion of mental health has never been more prevalent.
I was proud to have taken a leading role in the birth of this event and it all arose out of a conversation with Mrs Morgan looking to echo the success that PGS Pride has had. Given my issues with mental health, I felt it would be cathartic to try and explain it to pupils, to explain what it felt like, to explain what could be done to help. Initial conversations led to a great deal of excitement from both of us as to how successful this could be. That said, I don’t think any of us who took part expected the response we would get.
In the run up to the week I had been fairly confident about the talk I was to deliver about depression. Given I had run over it hundreds of times in my head in the previous few years I didn’t anticipate any nerves. In the week before, I received lots of messages of support and as the audience filed into the lecture theatre I suddenly became all too aware that I was about to reveal some really quite personal information in front of a group of children and colleagues (and friends) and that I was about to talk about some of my most deep-seated insecurities in a school when I hadn’t even been able to reveal them to some members of my own family.
The talk itself flew past and I failed to talk about a number of things I had made notes about. I was just glad that so many people had turned out. However, the response afterwards was incredible – some of the messages were incredibly touching and I never expected such positivity. Any anxieties I may have had that people would take the event the wrong way evaporated in the days following as the feedback was unanimously positive. It was a reaffirmation that PGS is a special place to be.
On top of that the film Fine was shown every day and I have not seen a better resource on bereavement for those who work with youngsters anywhere. Filled with touching scenes, moments of real sadness and characters that truly drew you in I cannot recommend seeing it enough. The pupils were, once again, the stars amongst the real stars who acted with them; Finn Elliott was incredible in the lead role, Freddie Fenton as the friend trying to help and Jazzy Holden perfectly, innocently, hesitantly and caringly delivering the chilling line of “Miss, his mum just died”. Cue a very big lump in my throat.
Ms Hart took up the baton with a brave and very personal talk about anxiety, yet again pushing out the boundaries of what adults talk about in schools. As those talking, we very much had the opinion that very little should be totally off-limits and we needed to display honesty and integrity throughout. Certainly the humanity on display hopefully encouraged the staff and pupil body of the acceptability to discuss a huge range of issues with members of staff. I know Ms Hart was also humbled by the responses.
Sessions on resilience and listening followed from Mrs Morgan, Mr Frampton and Dr King, sadly I was unable to make it to all those events but I know pupils valued the chance to hear about these two very important skills. I was very impressed with the questions, the thoughtfulness and the consideration for others.
The undoubted highlight of the week was listening to swimming World Champion Katy Sexton, MBE being so open about her battles with mental health issues throughout an elite sporting career. It was moving to hear the story of how someone who has made an Olympic final could consider themselves a failure. As Katy admitted, she was used to talking about her swimming, but putting the focus towards her mental health made her even more relatable. To see someone so successful put herself in such a vulnerable position, and be so appreciated for doing so, was a fitting finale to what has been one of the most exhilarating, emotionally exhausting and extraordinary weeks of my time at PGS. I hope this is just scratching the very surface, that it is just the beginning of a movement that will encourage openness, communication, discussion and, most importantly of all, improvements in our Mental Health. Happy and Successful, in that order – let’s make sure it happens.