An old girl rewinds to help stressed young things press Pause
With trepidation I approached the lectern in the wood-panelled auditorium. In front of me on tiered seating were 300 or so sixth-formers, ready to hear me tell them “how to stay sane in a crazy world”. They looked like any other teenagers. But these young women were among the brightest in the country.
I was giving my talk at St Paul’s Girls’ School in west London, which routinely tops the charts as the country’s most academically successful school at A-level. Of the girls’ academic prowess there is no doubt. But what of their mental health? Some well-heeled parents believe it is a hotbed of stress.
Here I must declare several interests. I am happy to share my own 17-year battle with depression, which has included two breakdowns. I’m also an Old Paulina. I, too, had sat on those chairs and listened to a weekly lecture, although in my day the lectures were on Mondays, not Fridays, and there used to be a clock we could check regularly to see how much more we had to endure . . .
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was little or no discussion of “wellbeing”, “resilience” or any of today’s mental-health buzzwords. I can’t recall any mention of “depression”. Though not a depressed teenager, and though I enjoyed my school days greatly and made lifelong friendships, I found being a Paulina stressful. I think my own anxious, striving nature was a poor fit at times with the school: I sometimes felt I never did well enough, however hard I tried. Therapy has taught me this may have been true whatever school I had attended.
I couldn’t have imagined then that nearly 30 years later I would be sharing my own strategies for beating the “black dog”: diet, breathing techniques, mindfulness and using poetry to develop a more compassionate, gentler inner voice among them. I only hoped the girls wouldn’t be as bored as I had once been.
Judging by their questions after my 30-minute talk, I needn’t have worried. The girls were at once animated but relaxed, both self-aware and mindful of the stresses facing their generation.
Their openness mirrors that of the school. It is now remarkably straightforward about acknowledging that mental health is an important topic, and is keen to help the girls proactively to build strategies to improve a sense of calm and wellbeing.
After my talk, I chatted to some of the girls over lunch. We did talk about mental health but shared much else: their passions and friendships, hopes and dreams, with as much laughter and joy as angst. When we did talk about their worries, I was struck by how similar they were to those of adults.
They confided that they felt stressed by the pressure to perform on social media; so do I. The girls are keen to balance the demands of work and family and friends; so am I. Surveys confirm this pattern. What stresses youngsters is very much the same as what stresses adults.
One area of difference is the pressure teenage girls are now under to present an idealised partying image of perfection round the clock. We worried about looking good too, but only when we went out. If anything, academic pressure is also worse. We tried for As; they aim for A*s.
As lunch progressed, one or two who had initially found it hard to talk about mental health — like most people — opened up. I was impressed by their coping strategies. Techniques and approaches it seems to have taken me a lifetime to discover were already much in evidence.
One girl lit up when she described how helping disabled people to go horse riding helped her own mental health. Research confirms the benefits we enjoy by trying to help others. This is certainly my experience as an ambassador for Sane and a volunteer for other mental health charities such as Depression Alliance, for which I lead poetry workshops for people with anxiety and depression.
Another girl talked about the mantras she uses to keep steady with admirable wisdom. When she worries, she asks herself: “Will this still be significant in 10 years’ time?” Some also found poetry therapeutic, using healing words to calm themselves. A large number of the hall put their hands up when asked if they used breathing to control bouts of anxiety. Some girls chatted about how exercise was a crucial tool in staying steady.
Since my own time as a Paulina, the school has radically changed; witness the fact that I was among the lecturers this term. However, the conversation about mental health and how best to foster wellbeing among the girls started years ago, according to the high mistress, Clarissa Farr. But the increase in mental illness among the young, now well documented, means it has become more explicit.
The school has many strategies to promote wellbeing and emphasises the building of positivity in all areas, from approaches to learning to serving excellent lunches.
“I believe it is incredibly important to build positive self-esteem and resilience, while being open about the pressures teenagers are under today, and to equip the girls with strategies to cope,” says Farr.
At St Paul’s, there is a counselling service and teachers are trained to spot symptoms in pupils who may be struggling. Tutor group sizes have been halved from 20 to 10: a more intimate group encourages more open discussion and the development of natural friendship groups. All the girls said that the teachers encouraged them to talk openly about anything on their minds, including the pressures they felt, which was certainly not routine in my day.
The school has introduced other avenues in which girls can excel besides the purely academic. Several girls talked passionately about an arts project they were invited to contribute to with a piece of creative writing or visual art: there were no marks to be won, or exams to pass or fail.
As the school’s large wooden door shut behind me, I thought how lucky I was. However nervous I may be of giving speeches, at least there are no more exams I have to pass.
Rachel Kelly’s memoir, Black Rainbow: how words healed me – my journey through depression, is published by Hodder & Stoughton in paperback at £8.99. All author proceeds to Sane and United Response. Follow Rachel @rache_Kelly or visit blackrainbow.org.uk for details of her #thewordsdoctor poetry workshops
for those with depression