Speaking to Mental Health Today Niki Cooper, clinical director at Place2Be, explained how the organisation is adapting their resources to lockdown 3, why expression is so vital to mental health in children, and why this awareness week is important as a space for pupils to discuss their wellbeing and mental health.

“American author and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou said: ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’. The theme ‘Express Yourself’ is about finding ways to share feelings, and telling our own stories, through creativity. This could be through art, music, writing and poetry, dance and drama, photography and film, and doing activities that make you feel good”, Niki said.

She further argued that this week is really important because approximately one in six children have a diagnosed mental health issues, which left unaddressed can snowball into even more established serious problems, and that statistic is not even taking into account the mental distress that Covid-19 has created. And consequentially this is why organisations like Place2Be, are essential as an advocacy medium to help support children develop the skills to thrive.

“In the past year, over 33,000 children and young people [have] accessed a support service from Place2Be. After counselling, 81% of children and young people, with severe difficulties show an improvement in their mental health. We also see a positive impact on children’s ability to concentrate and keep up in class, to maintain friendships, and fewer fixed term exclusions.”

Beyond one-week children’s mental health needs to be prioritised

Play therapy has since the early 20th century been established as the most effective method in discussing and treating mental health problems in children. Because while adults unsurprisingly are more competent in vocalising their feelings, children on the other hand usually don’t have the knowledge and words to begin any more mature therapeutic procedure.

Niki added: “Where adults typically use words to communicate, children and young people express themselves in a multi-dimensional way, through play, music, body language or even silence. In Place2Be’s therapeutic work, we use art and play to allow children to explore their thoughts and feelings in the most comfortable way for them.”

This year is going to be particularly special as Place2Be have teamed up with BAFTA Kids and Oak National Academy to create a virtual assembly based around the expression theme. That assembly will be available to all families and schools from Monday 1st February – and will feature celebrities and fellow young people.

Additionally, Niki said that a new training programme has been launched to support staff and student wellbeing: “To be able to reach more schools, we have recently launched our Mental Health Champions – Foundation programme – an online training programme designed to enhance professionals’ understanding of children’s mental health and introduce approaches that foster positive wellbeing in schools and communities. Thanks to our generous funders, Place2Be is able to offer the programme for free to up to 50,000 UK teachers and school staff.”

Beyond one-week, children’s mental health is increasingly a hot topic, because of the understandable long-term distress and potential trauma that will define the hangover of Covid-19, and will predictively become more central to public policy once the majority of adults have been vaccinated. Therefore, events like this one run by Place2Be are crucial in addressing the fears of a generation whose lives have been heavily restricted to save the most vulnerable.

Looking to the future, Niki said that a whole school mental health approach will have to be implemented to nip in the bud that growing challenge: “Going forward, Government funding for mental health support services will be crucial. At the most recent Spending Review the Government committed an additional £500m for NHS England, for mental health services but it is, as yet, unclear if any of this funding will reach school-based support services. We recently partnered with Young Minds to call on the Department for Education in England to introduce a ring-fenced Resilience Fund which would ensure schools could commission the mental health and wellbeing support that young people need.”