Saturday, 27 October 2018

A Whole School Approach to Mental Health

When I opened The MTA back in 2009 there was no name for the kind of pastoral policy that we were going to implement. However having worked in vocational training for over 20 years I knew that drama college seemed to involve an awful lot of crying. I hadn't met a singing teacher who couldn't relate to a 'crying student' anecdote.  I knew that I couldn't open a college without a counsellor (having spent the previous few years working in colleges which failed to provide this service).

By way of a fluke actually, the person that I asked to take on the role happened to be a mental health nurse specialist, who was also (by virtue of her day job) an extremely successful life coach. I realised early on that by making the counsellor a key person in the faculty, as opposed to an 'add-on', students would be more likely to engage in using her. I also felt it important that they could self-refer, as opposed to going through a system - thereby making a counselling service an easy thing to connect to.  It was imperative that the service was confidential, which again is impossible if students aren't able to self-refer.

What took me by surprise over the first few years though, was quite how many students who were visiting the counsellor for 'life coaching', seemed to come away with a mental health diagnosis.  In truth I felt that our counsellor must have been being over cautious, however, it quickly became apparent that this wasn't the case, when time after time the local GP's agreed with her diagnosis, and students were quickly given a 'care plan', be that medication or talking therapies.  Of course some of the talking therapy we were able to offer without long waiting lists, and as for the medication, our counsellor was able to give advice on the treatments, and indeed started to liaise with many of our local GP services in order to ensure that the students were on the best treatments straight away. It's easy to forget quite how little GP's know about Mental Health. We sort of think of them as 'all knowing', however, in reality, they probably spent just 6 months looking at Mental Illnesses during their training. So having an expert on the faculty enabled us to take various shortcuts, and more importantly enabled the students to get expert advice.

Initially, I felt that The MTA must have been incredibly unlucky to have quite so many students that were suffering from Mental Illnesses. I mean we're a tiny college (max of 44 students at any one time), whilst acknowledging that the students that we had were extremely lucky to have had a life-changing diagnosis.  Maladaptive coping mechanisms that were enabling them to have a productive life were suddenly being replaced with good health and the difference in every one of them was truly staggering.

However, such was the volume of previously undiagnosed illness I started to do some research and came across a survey from New Zealand. Rocked by an industry suicide they had undertaken a survey of the industry (backstage and onstage), and they had discovered that 1 in 3 of 'their industry' had an experience of personal mental illness as opposed to the recognised norm of 1 in 4.

That epiphany of it was an 'industry thing' was startling. Suddenly everything fell into place, we weren't the exception we were actually the norm. The big difference being that we had accidentally placed ourselves in a position to help people as opposed to simply brushing off symptoms. From that moment on it became a campaign to wake everybody else up - especially as more and more countries seemed to be making the link between our industry and mental health.

I've already blogged and vlogged about #time4change and the Mental Health Charter - but basically I felt like we needed to ring a really loud bell to tell other colleges (and indeed our industry as a whole) that something big was happening, and we all needed to respond to it.  In fact #time4change was the result of shouting about this for a number of years and everybody either ignoring me or telling me to shut up.

Going back to The MTA we just kept going - only now I truly understood that the work that we were doing was vital and potentially life-changing. 

We've always had 2 members of staff on call 24/7, 365 days a year, as we're aware that difficulties don't tend to be limited to the 8:30-5 college day. So our students, staff & graduates always have a mental health professional available to them.

So we have never changed what we've done, it's just in 2017 the government found a name for it - the 'whole school approach'.

We don't start working with our students until we know and understand them a bit. Take the premise of drama college - you go into classes with people asking you to be vulnerable BUT usually, those colleges/staff don't know a student's background - being vulnerable tends to open up a whole can of worms. So we try to find out if they're OK with being vulnerable first.

There's a misconception that this kind of approach is too 'kind', that we're creating a 'mollycoddled' cohort of students. Well, you couldn't be more wrong.  We have 0% unauthorised absence, we have 0% unauthorised lateness. For 99% of the year, we operate with 100% attendance (contagious sickness bugs are the only reason for approved absences). Students who are in the depth of a deep depression still come to college. . . because it's proven that getting up and at least attempting to do something will aid their recovery.   I would argue that we are building a true and honest resilience into each and every one of our students.

I've always held a belief that a large percentage of people go into our industry to escape, since opening The MTA I've added to that belief insomuch as I now believe that some people go into the industry to escape their own minds. I don't believe that the industry makes you ill, I believe that you were susceptible to illness (be that circumstances or genetic loading), and the industry with all of its 'be vulnerable to be great' teachings, have meant that those susceptibilities have been realised. Maybe if people had 'escaped' to a 9-5 office job those ticking time bombs would never have gone off? Who knows?

All of these discoveries were an accident, all created because the only counsellor that I could afford when I started was a certain Angie Peake. . . my wife! It's the most fortunate of accidents - and one that has transformed so many lives and continues to do so on a daily basis.

So there you have it - a whole school approach to mental health.

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