In 2017 the focus of the Newnham Family Forum was Mental Health, particularly in relation to young people. This has become a pressing matter as the number of under-eighteen year olds who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions has risen dramatically in recent years: are our children struggling more, or are we more aware of issues as they arise? We heard from experts in cognitive psychology and family psychiatry, the developer of an award-winning app designed to give struggling children a voice at school, a teacher and co-ordinator of a sixth form peer mentor initiative and a sixth-form student who has been a member of a peer mentor group and engaged directly with mental health services as a young person. For the panel in the afternoon our speakers were joined by Elrika Erasmus, one of Newnham’s two on site counsellors.
You can listen to podcasts of the talks from the morning below:
Dr Ros Ridley (NC 1968, Fellow Emerita): ‘What is Peter Pan All About?’
Ros gave a fascinating lecture on the ways in which Peter Pan reflects advances in thought about child development, and J. M. Barrie’s introspective portrayal of Peter as ‘between’ infant and adult, and ‘between’ animal and man. Ros drew on her background as a cognitive psychologist to consider questions of play, representation and theory of mind in relation to ‘joining the world of adults’, and the need for children to develop key cognitive processes as part of that transition.
Dr Alan Cooklin: ‘Families & Mental Health’
Alan’s discussion took us from Ros’ discussion of theories and representations of child development to the ways in which development of mental resilience in children can be affected by family affairs. He discussed the existence of significant events in children’s lives that can negatively affect children’s mental health and drew on his huge experience of family therapy to give overviews of existing services and a hugely helpful set of suggestions about ‘what not to do’ and ‘what to do’ to aid children’s mental well being.
Michael Brennan: ‘My Story & My App, Tootoot’
Michael took the discussion further in, to focus on one of the key factors in children’s mental wellbeing: their time at school. Discussing his own experiences of bullying at school, he told us about his involvement with one of the first peer mentor schemes in a school while Head Boy. He identified a key need for schools to provide an easy, confidential and discreet way for students to voice concerns or to make staff aware that they were being bullied, and created an app that would make this possible.
Hannah Plews (NC 1995) & Jade Calder: Tackling Mental Health in Schools
Hannah, who is also a Roll Committee member and one of the organisers of the Newnham Family Forum, began by telling us about the realities of supporting children in the education system, and the ways in which her school, Oldham Hulme Grammar School, uses Peer Mentors to provide student-to-student help. She describes the ways the school can help to train and support students who are keen to help their contemporaries and create a system in which both the mentors and the mentees can gain and develop from that relationship. She also described the ways in which both students and teachers used Tootoot, Michael’s app.
Jade, one of Hannah’s Peer Mentors, followed by giving a view from the front line: Jade is sixteen and is a Youth Councillor and a member of the Youth Parliament for Oldham for 2017-2018. She gave an extraordinary speech that bravely and honestly examined the ways in which her own mental well-being had been affected during her time at secondary school, and how she had gone on to provide support for others through the Peer Mentoring group. She also discussed the challenges of engaging with current mental health services for young people and noted the advances being made by the Youth Parliament. (Jade’s talk is at the end of the podcast linked below)
After a convivial lunch and glass of wine in College Hall, we had a full afternoon of discussion between the panel and the attending alumnae and their guests, chaired by Hannah Plews. It was a real pleasure to hear from everyone, and we thank the attendees and the panel for their inspiring and insightful contributions to a really helpful, and often moving, conversation.