Promoting good mental health in boarding schools 

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by Dr Felicia Kirk , Headmistress of St Mary’s Calne

Times have changed across society – very much for the better – when it comes to talking about mental health issues. No serious employer, the Services included, is without a programme to encourage employees to be open about their experiences, and there are many great examples of individuals dealing successfully with challenges that would once have made working life almost impossible.

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Nevertheless, there is still reluctance to talk about mental health issues (or special efforts would not be needed) and it would be surprising if school leaders – especially leaders of girls’ schools – weren’t also reluctant. National statistics show that girls are somewhat more likely to have mental health problems than boys. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that these must be worse when children are away from home and feeling a lot of pressure to do well inside and outside the classroom. Happily this is just not the case. In practice there are many reasons why a good boarding school environment today is positive for the mental health of both girls and boys.

What do we mean by ‘mental health’ though? Some conditions clearly qualify – such as clinical depression, anorexia and other forms of self-harm – but should we also include, for example, feelings of homesickness that many children have in the early stages of their time at boarding school (and not just in the first term, by the way), or anxiety about exams? The lines are not easy to draw and indeed it’s possible for bigger problems to develop from something that could have been dealt with sooner, or for a superficial worry to mask a deeper one. But it’s also important not to ‘medicalise’ feelings that are entirely natural when a girl or boy is experiencing them for the first time.

Ultimately the best approach is a balanced one. Achieving that is easier said than done of course but, in my experience, this is where boarding schools can really help.

‘Well-run boarding schools and boarding houses are, by nature, organised and structured environments’

Wellbeing programmes

First, all our staff are trained to consider these issues and to spot when something might be going wrong. Housemasters and mistresses in particular really get to know the children in loco parentis and, between them, they have a huge range of experience of the problems they can face. We also have nurses on hand day and night, school counsellors, and direct access to other mental health practitioners. Many boarding schools, including St Mary’s Calne, also offer bespoke wellbeing programmes covering many areas such as emotional health, positive relationships, social media, mindfulness, self-esteem and resilience. At St Mary’s, the wellbeing programme is supplemented by a series of talks and workshops. All in all, if there is a problem, it’s hard to imagine that a child would have better access to help in another environment.

Where boarding schools can make the difference for most of our students, however, is in the day-to-day lifestyle that we offer before anything goes wrong. We work hard to establish a culture across the school that maximises the chances of identifying problems but also minimises the chances of them arising. As I said earlier, some of the feelings pupils have are just part of normal life and being in a supportive and understanding environment will be enough to get them through them.

Well-run boarding schools and boarding houses are, by nature, organised and structured environments. In my experience, this in itself helps pupils to be productive and constructive and provides a sense of belonging and security. When parents in Service families are overseas for long periods it can be very reassuring for a child to have this ‘boarding family’ on hand. The tutor system at St Mary’s Calne, for example, means a pupil’s tutor stays with them as they move up through the school.

Another important aspect of mental health (and one that is important to many Service families) is physical wellbeing – in fact the two go hand in hand. Boarding schools today offer an unrivalled range of opportunities for sporting and other outdoor activities, with the highest quality of coaching and support. This is equally true for girls and for boys. Many girls’ schools are committed to addressing the problem across society of girls dropping sport and becoming physically inactive early in life. Many boarding schools also provide great food (some things do change!) and, along with it, advice and education on nutrition. Eating is still too often connected with mental health issues, and the more we can do to make it an area of positive interest for girls in particular, the better.

So, for me, a healthy culture in our boarding schools is the key – one in which staff can recognise issues quickly and use their skills to deal with them effectively, but also one where these issues are not the main focus. Schools that strike the right balance on mental health encourage children to do their best, grasp opportunities and achieve as much as they can but do this in the context of a warm and supportive environment where every child is understood and genuinely valued as an individual.

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