Review by Frances Akinde

SEND advisor and neurodiversity champion

27 May 2023, 5:00


The Conversation – with Frances Akinde

White noise

I have two best friends on Twitter: mute and block. They help me to navigate what seems to have become an increasingly toxic space.

Using social media comes with its risks and can affect your mental health. My biggest trigger is discrimination, racism in particular. You can’t read about a person of colour without feeling anxiety around the comments. Some guard their mental health by not posting or engaging, but in reality you only have to read or see something that you don’t want to for the damage to be done.

Sadly, navigating toxic spaces seems to come with the territory of trying to raise awareness around issues that are important to you. I have to keep reminding myself that edu-Twitter is also full of amazing people. Indeed, some have supported me (whether they’ve known it or not) when I have had my own mental health challenges, not least when I was transitioning out of headship into consultancy last year. 

In that context, it has been good to see educators, especially headteachers, sharing their own stories around mental health and what they do to manage their personal challenges for this year’s Mental Health awareness week theme on anxiety.

But it can’t just be about this week, and in spite of the more toxic aspects of education social media, you will also find some who regularly post about what they do to prioritise their wellbeing. Former headteacher, Julia Skinner, who now supports teachers and leaders on their career journeys, models self-care with the hashtag, #3goodthings – listing three positive experiences each day. They are lovely to read and remind you of the importance of gratitude around everyday moments that may seem small. 

Coming in from the cold

Mental health awareness week may have ended with the Daily Telegraph calling children snowflakes who need to toughen up for crying about getting exam questions wrong, but it was something at once more relevant and more helpful that caught my eye.

As part of their enquiry into post-Covid school attendance, the education select committee this week heard evidence from the mental health charity, Mind about the links between mental health and attendance. I urge you to watch the testimony.

Snowed under

It got me thinking, the same could be applied to absence among teaching staff. If we don’t support their mental health, how can teachers and leaders be well enough to support their students? 

This blog from education support organisation, Strictly Education makes the important point that, as well as being good for them, mental health support for teachers “also contributes to better educational outcomes for students”.

I find it concerning, as reported in Schools Week, that only six in ten schools have taken up the department for education’s training grant funding for mental health leads in schools. The most common reason cited is they are struggling to find time for the course, once again highlighting the very real and tangible impacts of the sector’s ongoing workload problem.

A blizzard of need

But while mental health awareness week gave many struggling teachers the space and confidence to talk about their mental health concerns, there was less evidence of sympathy on show for people with ADHD. It’s great to see the stigma lifted from conditions like anxiety that some might call situational or environmental, but there’s clearly a way to go to before we’re clear of prejudice for others.

Comments flooded my timeline in response to last week’s BBC Panorama, Private ADHD clinics exposed that I don’t need to repeat. But while the show seemed to have taken us back a massive step with regards to ADHD awareness, the result was an avalanche of support as people with the condition found the courage to speak out about their experiences. Indeed, ADHD Foundation called the programme “a poorly researched, sensationalist piece of television journalism”.

And so mental health week provided nothing if not a flurry of evidence that mental health itself is the grip of toxic public discourse. But within that, connections were made, people were supported and minds were changed. And that’s enough to keep me engaging.

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