Every September, as the girls settle into their new routines, we remind them about the important role they play in speaking up if they think anyone is struggling and needs support. We are proud of our culture, where girls can speak openly about any concerns. As a community, we actively promote the value of thoughtfulness and also encourage girls to speak up, with both bravery and honesty.
Increasingly, we talk to the girls about the important business of talking responsibly about mental health. This dialogue can help pupils equip themselves with the skills and understanding to strengthen their own emotional resilience, and allows those who are finding things difficult to speak candidly and access the appropriate help.
We also help our teenagers to distinguish between mental health issues that need professional support, as opposed to the feelings and worries that are simply part of the travails of being human. We advise them about the perils of glamourising unhelpful coping strategies, and the pitfalls of exaggerating or gossiping about problems. Whilst many pupils are very well informed for their age, we remind them to guard against flippantly labelling themselves, or others, with mental health conditions that haven’t been properly diagnosed by a qualified professional. We also counsel against over-sharing – particularly on social media – and instead help them to recognise when it’s time to seek adult support. A good friend can listen, but shouldn’t seek to dramatise (nor try to take on) problems they’re not equipped to handle.
Of course many teenaged girls love to talk and to confide in each other. But the teenage brain is still learning about behavioural self-management – impulse control, maintaining perspective and problem-solving. Many teenagers love feeling really involved in their friends’ lives, which can be a very positive thing. Sometimes, however, they can get sucked into a way of bonding that focuses on negative feelings or comparing levels of unhappiness. Of course there will be times girls want to offload, but it is important not to make negative chatter become a default pattern of conversation. Social groups can fall into the cycle of bringing everyone up… or making everyone feel down. We advise against becoming entwined in the latter, and suggest ways to help to reverse this pattern, should it embed itself.
Research has clearly demonstrated that patterns of thinking – positive or negative – can be learned and somewhat self-perpetuating. Just as we learn to play the piano or speak a language better through practice, if we routinely practise one or the other way of thinking, we get better at it; eventually we don’t even have to think as hard to keep it going. This can be great if we get on a positive track – but very destructive and distressing if we find ourselves on the negative side of things. We teach our pupils to understand this, and to be on the lookout for unhelpful patterns that could evolve within their friendship group.
During the girls’ first Personal, Social & Health Education (PSHE) lessons of the academic year, we reinforce these messages. Ms Waghorn, our Head of Psychology, is currently developing a powerful programme of study specifically to help our students to establish the positive patterns of thinking and behaviours that support emotional resilience – more on this to follow. In the meantime, as parents and as educators, we can continue to coach our girls on how to best support their friends: reinforcing the maturity they demonstrate in recognising when it’s time to seek adult help; being on standby to offer guidance when needed; and helping them to harness the positive potential of their own thoughts to support their wellbeing.
Senior Deputy Head, Ms Brass, has headed up the pastoral team at South Hampstead High School since 2017. As a school, we aim to foster a culture of curiosity and kindness. The school emblem of the torch shines a light on the school’s values: Thoughtfulness, Open-heartedness, Respect, Courage and Honesty – values that matter to the whole school community.