Today, the Self-Esteem Team are launching ‘Letters to Tess’, a relentless campaign which will see us write to the Prime Minister every single day for a year, or until she responds in a meaningful way.
The Self-Esteem team consists of myself, musician Grace Barrett and showbiz editor Nadia (Nadz) Mendoza. As you know, I’ve been going into schools since 2007, as well as writing about and campaigning for young people and teachers on the issues of body image and mental health. Both Grace and Nadz had experience working with children and young people, as well as of the industries which so often impact how they think and feel about themselves. So, in collaboration with four doctors with expertise in mental health and adolescence, we formed SET and have been travelling the UK’s schools and colleges since 2012 delivering workshops and presentations for teenagers on mental health, exam stress, body image and increasingly gender stereotyping and consent.
Since then, we have visited an average of four schools per week: That’s comprehensives, academies, free schools, independent schools and special needs schools in all areas of the UK and beyond. Our book ‘The Self-Esteem Team’s Guide to Sex, Drugs & WTFs?!!’ won an award which means it is now available ‘on prescription’ – free in every library in Britain for young people who are struggling and want some advice from Big Sister figures. We’re contacted every day by young people and teachers on our ever-growing online networks (run by Nadz). All of this has given us an unique insight into the needs of the education sector in supporting wellbeing.
We know that a one-off assembly or PSHE lesson on mental health isn’t enough. Wellbeing needs to be woven into the fabric of the curriculum. And for that to happen the powers that be must recognise its importance and carve out real time for it in the school day. Since 2010, our government has pushed for ‘improvement of academic standards’ in a way which means arts, sport and life skills have either been sacrificed, cut or plunged in quality owing to lack of resource and funding. The result has been a mental health crisis in under 21s. The last reliable figures we have on mental health date back to 2004. There is reticence to do another census which would accurately reflect the number of people suffering in 2016. The results would, I have no doubt, be terrifying.
Everything about the way we live our life in today’s modern world works against basic human nature – Neolibralism, individualism, consumerist capitalism and technology conspire to make us stressed, anxious and depressed. And since the revolution aint happening any time soon, it’s essential we give children and young people the tools they need to cope with a world which is constantly finding new and innovative ways to bash their self-esteem and mental health.
Teachers are already overworked and schools stretched. We know this. However, we believe just ten minutes a day spent on wellbeing could have a significant impact on the mental health of both teachers and pupils, as well as the culture of schools.
Too often, we only acknowledge mental health when someone starts outwardly showing the signs of a mental illness. In fact, mental health is universally relevant because we all have a brain. Just as we learn that eating well, exercising and drinking water will provide a basic level of physical health, there are mental health equivalents. Learning these basic skills won’t cure all mental illnesses, just as eating well can’t necessarily protect you from cancer, but it will, we believe, prevent many mental health issues and much emotional distress. It will reach out to all those young people whose symptoms aren’t severe enough for medical intervention from CAMHS but need some guidance.
In August 2015 SET launched Letters to Dave. We wrote every day to David Cameron asking for a meeting to present our ideas on how wellbeing could be incorporated more effectively into the culture of schools and done relatively simply, cost effectively and without burdening teachers with huge amounts of extra training. At letter 76 we were asked by the Department for Education to stop the campaign and offered a meeting in return. The subsequent meeting was brief, dismissive and amounted to nothing.
Undeterred, we created ‘Get SET’ – a series of ten minute wellbeing exercises we had designed. We trialled them over the summer term 2016 in a selection of schools throughout the UK and worked with University College London to measure their impact.
Now, we want Theresa May to meet with us so we can present the results of our study.
We are tired of the government’s empty promises on mental health. We’re tired of non-ring-fenced budgets which are ‘made available’ for mental health but never reach the people they were intended for. Every day, we see people in real and significant distress and so far all the government has offered them are a few pretty words and PR stunts. The average Local Authority still only spends 1% of its health budget on mental health and only half of them have increased that spending in real terms since the government’s investment was announced with so much fanfare, last summer. That is what all the talk of ‘parity of esteem’ has amounted to, in real terms. We know how many people out there are desperate for real, tangible change.
We’re tired of our views and expertise being dismissed because we’re women, because we have experience of mental health issues ourselves, because we have pink hair, an afro and several tattoos between us, because we swear occasionally, because, in short, we have all the ingredients which make us credible and interesting to the teenagers we work with. Our classes have made a genuine impact on the people they were delivered to. We have a 92% success rate of increasing pupils’ understanding of mental health and an 87% success rate of increasing their confidence to talk about their feelings and seek help if they need it. 93% of pupils leave our classes feeling more positive about themselves. We’ve created our programme without public funding and with a great deal of people determined to sneer at us. We kept going because we care. And it’s working.
But we are only three and we can’t be in every single school in the UK, all the time.
We posted the first letter today. Follow us at @_selfesteemteam or find us on Facebook (SET_HQ) to keep up to date with how we are getting on.