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Elizabeth Holmes

Championing wellbeing with Natasha Devon

Charged with helping to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around young people’s mental health, Natasha Devon MBE was named as the government’s mental health champion for schools. Elizabeth Holmes finds out more.

Natasha Devon MBE

Natasha Devon is seen as an inspiration to many young people. As founder of the Self-Esteem Team and the Body Gossip Education Programme, which give young people practical tips on dealing with mental health and body image concerns, Natasha has delivered classes to more than 50,000 teenagers, as well as their parents and teachers. I caught up with Natasha to find out more about what schools can do to support children and young people who are struggling with poor mental health.

We don’t have up to date statistics about the prevalence of mental health issues in young people but would you say this is a common problem?

I've begun to realise recently that trying to categorise 'mental illness' by prevalence is part of the problem when it comes to stigma. For example, the endlessly quoted '1 in 4 people has a mental illness' statistic presents mental health as 'other' - something that happens to other people, who are over there and is unlikely to affect you.

The term 'mental health' also covers an incredibly wide scope so it's difficult to put it into a neat box. We'd never say '1 in 4 people has a physical health problem'. Whilst I've certainly seen a rise during the time I've been working in this field in prevalence of issues like disordered eating, self-harm and anxiety, this could be because we are talking about it more now than in 2008 - when I started. Who knows how many battled behind closed doors when it was less socially acceptable to discuss these issues?

Equally, I think given the way society and the economy is structured at the moment, the narrowing of the school curriculum, diminishing family time, increased exam pressure and 24 hour peer and media pressure via the internet, any human (and particularly a teenager) is likely to struggle to a lesser or greater degree. People who experience depression or self-harm aren't mad, they are just like you or me. For whatever reason they are finding life difficult right now, which could reasonably happen to anyone.

So it really is important for schools to raise awareness among staff of the need to help children and young people towards health and wellbeing. This message is relevant to everyone.

Absolutely. Mental health is relevant to everyone with a brain. We all need to nurture our minds in the same way we look after our bodies by exercising regularly and eating right. Ideally, that process needs to start from as early as possible. Let's look at prevention, rather than cures.

Current mental health services for children are woefully inadequate, meaning that schools often struggle to support pupils in the most appropriate way. How can school staff be better equipped in this task?

The government has just pledged £1.5 million to testing joint training schemes between schools and local CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). This is a great idea, because even before mental health services were cut, not many teachers were aware of the support available in their local community. Under this scheme, teachers will be able to contact a qualified expert if they are dealing with a pupil who is experiencing a mental health problem and can find out where to signpost.

While there is plenty more that can be done to ensure that teachers receive the training they need to support children, isn’t it important to ensure that the burden doesn’t rest fully on schools?

I think we need to work on making CAMHS more accessible for young people - my team works closely with the charity Young Minds and one of the things they have flagged to us is that many children and teenagers find accessing CAMHS intimidating. They won't make full use of the resources available to them. This isn't to excuse cuts to services. The idea that such a minuscule amount of the overall health budget is spent on mental health when 1 in 3 GP visits is for a mental health issue is ludicrous. I think as well as campaigning for more funding to be put into mental health we also need to ensure that people are able to make full use of the services that currently exist.

You can contact Natasha at: getselfesteemteam@gmail.com.

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