It’s only natural

I am tasked with preparing an on-line assembly for students to highlight the start of Mental Health Awareness week 2021, but find myself feeling quite hesitant about this. You may find this surprising , but I will try to explain why.

As you know, I am an enthusiastic wellbeing advocate, encouraging people to take care of their mental health in the same way they do their physical wellbeing. It has taken me many long years – too many I am sure – to realise that like pets, wellbeing is not just for Christmas (or other holiday periods). I wish someone had grabbed my younger self and explained this to her; back then people rarely mentioned mental health at all – unless in hushed tones. In my mind, wellbeing was intrinsically linked to medicine, exercise and diet and was represented as either illness or hard work. I was not at home to either of these (well, I was at home, but didn’t regard myself as physically ill so any well intentioned advice would have fallen on sullen ears ). No, I was more interested in camoflaguing my spots and finding an excuse to miss the next PE lesson.

I do not remember anyone joining up the dots for me. As a teenager I hoped for some quick emotional fixes – perhaps in the shape of David Cassidy whisking me off into the sunset, or my hair tongs becoming more collegiate about my desired transformation into Farrah Fawcett Major. I was more of a ‘right Charlie’ than a Charlie’s Angel. I do vaguely remember my mother trying to persuade us to ‘take some fresh air’, but as we were not allowed a dog (see above) there was really no incentive to go outside. Although I wasn’t a particularly happy teenager, I put this down to hormones and decided that I would retire to my bedroom until I was ready to emerge as a cool and confident 18 year old.

The cool and confident passed me by, but at 18 I did make it to university so I had to leave the house. Unwittingly I had chosen a university by the sea and I soon discovered that sea air and walking to lectures made me a nicer person to be around. It was all quite painless really; I just had to get outside every day. I also discovered that I enjoyed the outside more when I was with other people; talking seemed easier somehow.

So, thinking about the teenage audience I need to speak to this week, I realise that any wellbeing message needs to be relevant to them, particularly after a year when they have been prevented from doing the things that teenagers should be doing and that make them feel good . Most of them will have been confined to a bedroom – a room which may have been shared with a hormonal sibling – and if they did want sport, that was also a smack in the chops because PE lessons and clubs were all cancelled. I want to avoid my assembly sounding like a paternal nag to ‘get some fresh air’.

I see that Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 has taken Nature as its theme. I approve thoroughly, but because of the concerns noted above, before I write the assembly I want to be sure that the audience will be biddable. I do some ‘student voice’ with my Year 9 class to ask them what works for them when they feel low or out of sorts. Their answers all had an inside theme:

  • I play computer games
  • I binge watch Netflix/TikTok/Youtube
  • I eat chocolate and/or pizza and/or KFC or McDonalds.

I decide to verify my data. ‘Do any of you get outside to boost your mood?’

  • Only if football is on
  • Why would I?
  • Only if I can’t bribe my little brother to walk the flipping dog
  • Not if I have to be seen out with my parents

I can see that this is going to be a tough gig and, because of my own context, I have some sympathy. I don’t want to come across as a tree-hugging, vegetarian yogi (I am now all three, but I certainly wasn’t at their age) and leave students with the impression that Mental Health Awareness is a one week initiative after which we will leave them in peace and let them go back inside their room and inside their head. We won’t trouble them again until next year, unless they start raising any concerns.

Frankly I was hoping that the student voice would show me that the Mental Health Awareness campaign had been on the money when it chose Nature as its annual theme. If ever there was a year when nature has been our friend, it has been the last one. From my research, I can tell that the students like being outside again but this is because they can hang out with their friends not because they are necessarily focusing on an outside commune with the natural world. They don’t seem to have made the connection with their wellbeing.

I go to Mental Health Foundation’s excellent website to get some ammunition. and decide that before I get into the zone for my assembly pulpit, I will undertake a self-audit. The MHF offers the following advice and I complete my own self-analysis against this criteria.

  • Find nature wherever you are:
    Tick – I found a huge spider in the bedroom this morning
  • Connect with nature using your senses:
    Tick – I drove past a particularly smelly cow herd on my way down the A38 today and unfortunately had my window down.
  • Exercise in nature:
    Tick(s) – This one I have nailed. I ran in the pouring rain this morning, boot camped in the mud yesterday….but I confess that I wouldn’t have done this as a teenager and would have probably punched anyone who suggested that I might.
    #NormaPearson raises the question that although exercise is proven to increase endorphins, if you are in a dark place, could telling someone to exercise just add more pressure?(check out her great podcast ‘Fitness without the Fluff*)
  • Get out in nature:
    Tick -(see above) but again, my teenage self would have been reluctant. I lived in the belief that I was allergic to fresh air and sunshine.
  • Bring nature to you:
    Tick – Both my gifted orchids and my Christmas cacti are still alive – which is a miracle in itself and makes me very happy. I think my teenage self could possibly have been persuaded to plant and nurture a sunflower….if a cash prize had been offered for the tallest stem.
  • Protect Nature:
    Tick – I helped that large, bedroom spider find his escape route in a very speedy fashion via deft handing of a glass and piece of paper; my teenage self would have screamed to have the culprit exterminated by a parent in case it returned.

Thus, from my market research, I can tell I am in for a tough sell and I am hoping that I have managed to explain my hesitancy. Add to this a teenage revulsion towards any adult offering wellbeing tips. I can see a rolling of eyes and a distracting social media scroll if I dare mention the healing qualities of a calming deep breath in the world of nature.

I decide to keep my message simple and decide the following should suffice: ‘Students, this week it would be good to check in with yourself and see how you are doing. Possibly you may feel even better if you get outside at some point – but you know yourselves best. By the way, The Mental Health Association have some top tips and you can find them on social media; let us know how you get on. Their takeaways are:

  • Find nature wherever you are:
    Check out my previous assembly on Julie the chimp. Wear a blade of grass in your ear, start a natural trend. Or, lie on your bed and look out of your window up at the sky. Everyone should have some sky to look at.
  • Connect with nature using your senses:
    Leave out the Lynx this week and report back
  • Exercise in Nature:
    Good news, Sports Day is rescheduled so you can hype up your step count by walking to the ice cream van. Do not forget your sun screen.
  • Get out in Nature
    See above or borrow a neighbour’s dog and earn some money at the same time.
  • Bring Nature to you:
    The weather forecast is rubbish this week, so feel free to bring that mud and rain into the classrooms.
  • Protect Nature:
    Stop wearing Lynx and if you go to to KFC make sure you picnic outside – and recycle your packaging.

My older self tells me that an easing of Lockdown, some summer sunshine and the fact that our young people are so much more aware of themselves than I was at their age, will eventually encourage them to get outside in nature and at some point perhaps acknowledge that my assembly may not have been ‘the same old, same old.’ I am keen for the students not to feel patronised by an old teacher like me trying to walk their shoes outside to demonstrate the healing qualities of Nature’s spa. If only Glastonbury was running this year, I would have had some ammunition.

Next week I might just check in again with my Year 9 to get some post-assembly vox pox; I am hoping I will have coaxed a few out of their dark bedroom caves and into the sunlight, for we could do with some volunteers to plant sunflower seeds in our neglected school garden. Tomorrow I will go cap in hand to the PTA to provide a cash prize for the tallest flower.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrew says:

    I am currently stapling an Autumn leaf to my left ear


    1. We need to see a photo!

      Liked by 1 person

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