Addressing Mental Health in Schools: An Interview with Catriona Steell

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In June 2016 Theatre Nemo was approached by Trinity High School to enquire if we could work in partnership with the aim of improving the mental health and wellbeing outcomes for their S2 students.

After meeting with the school staff it was clear that there was growing concern around the rise in poor mental health within the student population. Bringing Theatre Nemo’s experience and unique creative approach to engagement and exploring mental health topics both partners agreed to move forward. A highly succesful pilot scheme  providing Drama, Taiko Drumming and Songwriting  activities followed. Delivered over 10 weeks to appoximately 200 pupils the project had dramatic positive effects on pupils confidence and their awareness of mental health issues. Funding has been secured to roll out a larger scale version of the project in May 2018.

One of the teachers who initially had the idea of exploring mental-health issues with pupils and reached out to Theatre Nemo was Catriona Steell. In the interview below she outlines her thoughts on mental-health in schools,how she felt this years project went and her hopes for the project coming in 2018.

Hi Catriona, thank you for agreeing to this interview. I wonder if you could start by giving us a bit of background about yourself and what got you interested in mental- health issues?

I have been teaching for eight years now mainly, at Trinity High School in South Lanarkshire. Over that time I’ve developed really great relationships with pupils. For me teaching is about seeing progress in young people, it’s about caring for them as an individual. This is why I was really keen to get involved in an educational and creative mental-health project. I have had quite a lot of pupils coming up to me and talking about feeling low or feeling anxious. It was really important from me to be able to give the correct advice and help.

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What inspired you to start putting this particular project together?

I think for me, I was just aware that there was a lot of coverage and stats in the media regarding mental-health and young people. One of the stats that I read said that approximately three pupils in every class will have a mental health problem now or in the future. For me as a teacher it was something that I just couldn’t ignore, it wasn’t going to go away. I think it’s something that we need to address inside and outside class through these types of projects. The project we did with Theatre Nemo really inspired me to get more involved and look into different therapies that we can offer to pupils who are suffering from mental health issues.

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Why do you think personally that it is important for pupils to speak about and learn about mental-health?

Children are our future and a lot of them are experiencing mental health issues themselves or their experiencing it at home with a family member or friend. No matter what walk of life you come from or how old you are, you’re likely to have some experience of mental health whether personally or indirectly through a family member or friend. I think it’s really important that we remove the stigma and speak about mental health openly as we do with other illnesses. We should encourage our young people that there is nothing to be ashamed of and it’s okay to talk about these things. It is important they know that mental health issues are something that is okay to share and discuss.

That’s really interesting that you bring up what I guess you could label as ‘parity of esteem’ between mental illness and physical illness. Is that something you always felt or is that a conclusion you’ve come to over time?

In preparation for the Theatre Nemo project earlier this year I put up two slides. One slide asked the pupils to write down everything they associated with physical health the other was what they associated with mental health. What was really fascinating from those results was that pupils largely for physical health
wrote down things like exercise diet and several other ways to prevent poor physical health. However when they wrote about mental health though it was all negative things about what happens when it goes wrong and they didn’t have many answers as to what to do to make it right.

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What do you think the pupils took away from the various projects Theatre Nemo offered like Drama, Song writing and Taiko drumming?

I think the main thing from the pupils was the incredible positive feedback I got. You could feel that all of the sessions had a really positive energy. The pupils were happy to participate and they felt like they could speak openly and freely. It just had such an incredible effect on their self-esteem. At the showcase we had pupils up on stage in front of their parents who never would have dreamed of performing. They were so confident and that for me was just an amazing progression to watch in those young people. We had a young girl who got up at the end of the performance and talked very openly about her own insecurities and body image issues. To do that in front of a group of adults in such an open way, I mean, that just wouldn’t have come about if they hadn’t participated in the projects.

What do you think Trinity High School and Theatre Nemo have taken from this year’s project and how can we use what we have learned to make next years even better?

We are really excited because next year’s project is actually going to be on a much bigger scale than this year’s. This year was a pilot so we’ve had two groups of S2 pupils and, although we just loved it, one thing that we felt was that it was a shame that not every pupil in S2 got the chance to participate. For next year we’re hoping that it is going to be for all S2 pupils so that it is giving everybody a chance. We are also going to be doing the project and a more intensive way, there will be two full days of taster workshops followed by a week of workshops leading up to a final performance. There will be a wider variety of workshops involved as well, we are just really excited to get started!

Is there anything else you would like to add to what you’ve already said?

I think the main thing is to make sure that the pupils have a good understanding of the project before it starts. Such great relationships were built up between our pupils and the theatre Nemo staff that there is already a real buzz about the project an excitement there. I think the fact that the pupils saw the project and saw the amazing and result means that there’s less nervousness in getting involved this time.

Brilliant, thanks so much.

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