Next month I’m chairing a London conference on mental health in the workplace and it’s got me thinking about the work we do in the FE sector. Whether you are working with apprentices or in a higher education setting, the pressure on the young people is evident in today’s fast-paced technological world.
Research shows that 75% of mental health problems are established by the age of just 24, so surely educators and employers know the things they can be doing to help the young people they work with, right?
Well my experience is not at all. There is still a taboo about mental health difficulties and in my life as a behaviour expert I hear expressions like “it is very complicated, we leave it to experts.”
Well the truth is no; low level mental health support is not complicated and it’s your fear that’s making it feel complicated to you. It comes down to some very simple things that every employer or educator could put in place easily provided they are prepared to face the taboo head on.
Prior to becoming a teacher, I worked as a support worker in mental health wards, I worked with some very complex and unwell adults and children in a variety of settings and saw what happens when they consume someone’s life.
I come across many young people in the course of my work who have low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness and poor support networks, combine this with the pressure to succeed in their apprenticeship or on their course, plus any friendship or family issues and you’ve got a pressure pot ready to explode.
Many mental health problems begin to show themselves as low-level social or emotional problems - it could be stress or anxiety, it may be poor sleeping problems or bad personal hygiene. That’s the time to pick it up, offer to help, not later when they are in crisis and unable to work.
As a teacher, I know about the importance of making sure that my students are ready for learning, physically and mentally. As the CEO of a company I am very concerned about the productivity of my company, but I am far more concerned about the wellbeing of my staff. Something that affects them has an impact on my business. Yes, there are times that there are things going on in our lives that we have to set aside whilst we focus on our work, however this is not something that will come naturally to most young people, particularly if it is a mental health need.
In a key-note I gave last year I covered some practical things that could be done to break the taboo:
- Talk about it – stop avoiding it, it’s taking over their life, so don’t let it be the elephant in the room!
- Normalise it – it’s alright to be overwhelmed at times, we all experience it in our lives, make sure you express it yourself
- Know how to listen – people are great at talking, but awful at listening, if you are having a supportive conversation, then for you much of the conversation should actually be in silence whilst you give them the space to think and talk about their concerns.
- Mentoring – one of the best mechanisms I consider to put in place is peer mentoring – this instantly removes the “I can’t talk about this to my boss/tutor” issue.
- Make sure you recognise the safe ways of dealing with emotions – bottling up, suppressing, acting out, withdrawing or dumping are not good.
- Knowing when to get professional help – if a mental health problem is affecting someone’s daily quality of life, then that’s the time to seek help.
- Positive mental health habits – we spend so long talking about “mental health” being a bad thing, look at the phrase – it implies a positive. Things like gratitude, affirmations, meditation, exercise or yoga classes all contribute to positive mental wellbeing.
In case you can’t tell tackling these taboos is important to me, mental health is a topic that I make sure my team cover in all of our mentor courses. We’re even looking at putting on a series of regional conferences, partnering with employers and FE providers, in order to help others address this. Just remember, it is the little things that make the difference.
Richard Daniel Curtis, Founder, The Mentoring School