There is much talk these days of the future world of work, whether it’s from the perspective of the 100-year life or humans versus AI. Different studies tell us different things, give us different theories as to what our future world will look like; and whilst no hypothesis is conclusive, I am pleased that it is being discussed and ideas shared. What is more frightening than walking blindfold into a future where an acceptance of ‘this is how things are’ takes us to a place we really wouldn’t want to go.
One thing that is certain is that the children of today are critical in determining the world of tomorrow. For me that means equipping our young people with curious minds, collaborative mind-sets, the ability to keep growing and developing and, importantly, having resilience; the ability not only to cope with change but to thrive on it. Yet all the studies tell us that mental ill health amongst children and young people is on the rise. Wherever we point the finger of blame for this growing epidemic, we need to do something about it now: to provide the right support and the right interventions.
Recent involvement in a local campaign took me into schools and community centres in my local city. There I heard stories of young people’s challenging experiences. I also met some amazing women (and yes they were all women) working tirelessly, with limited resources, to support children and young people in a myriad of different ways. Their dedication humbled me. One of these women was a school counsellor who worked in schools in some of my city’s more deprived areas. Today is world mental health day and today’s guest blog is from that school counsellor.
In order to write this blog, I have to answer the question presented to me, which was “What is it like to work with mental health in young children?” and the truth is, that despite several attempts at writing and re writing…I have no definitive answer.
It’s a hundred different things and countless individual little moments. It’s politics and money and funding and frustration and exhilaration and exhaustion, and so much more. I am a school counsellor working with children and young people from 5-18 years of age with a background of 19 years as a private nanny; and yet there really was no amount of experience of working with children or training for a degree in psychotherapy that could prepare me for this role….
I knew the moment I walked into the school that it was where I wanted to be, but it was a steep learning curve for me to disseminate the roles of nannying and counselling. I was no longer able to give these children a hug, or confide in their parents that I had concerns about their friendships. I was suddenly in a position where the child had the autonomy; the child made the decision whether or not to engage, and whether or not to trust me. I had little control and was not able to influence them in any way. Which meant learning a new way.
Being in that school, in an area of deprivation and poverty and with a demographic that presented multi-faceted and complex needs on a weekly, if not daily basis, was truly a baptism of fire. Within a very short time I had learnt the hard way how to make safeguarding referrals, the importance of accurate note taking, the absolute need for immediate communication with other professionals when the circumstance called for it and the unendingly intricate balance of maintaining a client’s confidentiality versus keeping them safe.
I learnt to trust my gut. And to check it. And check it again.
I’ll never forget one of the very first sessions I had with a young man who came into my room, and literally choked on his words. Unable to breathe, or talk, and with tears streaming down his face, he stuttered his way through a disclosure of such awful childhood trauma that it was all I could do to stay in the moment with him, hear him, allow space for this regurgitation of details that left me with my first experience of vicarious trauma. Afterwards I reflected on what an incredibly courageous thing it had been for him to divulge his most feared memories and wondered what I had done to deserve the honour of being trusted with them.
It was in those early sessions that I sincerely learnt to listen, and more significantly I learnt the importance of patience. I remember one client who came to me for 4 weeks straight, for 40 minutes every week, and each time there was nothing but silence. Completely stonewalled – no way in, no way out. I sat with her and listened to her censorship of self. I watched the clock. I wondered. I worried. I hung on in there. She kept returning, she stayed mute and then she left.
Two years later she walked in, sat down and told me what hurt. I cried, she cried… all she had needed was for me to prove that I wasn’t going anywhere. That I accepted her in her silence, and that I didn’t give up. In those interminable minutes of silence when my head had been going all over the place and I was doubting my ability, all she had needed was for me to sit tight.
That one girl taught me so much.
Another young person I once worked with suffered severe depression and was a regular self-harmer. It was not uncommon for this person to reach such depths of despair that they felt the only way out was to die. Frequently we would be contracting around whether or not they felt they would be alive for the next session. Those moments are terrifying. Like, genuinely scary. I questioned for hours afterwards whether the words I had chosen were the right ones. I picked apart every moment of that 40-minute session to see if I’d covered all bases, trying to find anything I may have missed. But week after week and month after month this person stayed alive and kept returning.
I marvelled at the strength, determination and courage it took for them to do that. And when life began to change, when things began to look not only manageable but enjoyable for this person, when they could start to see a future for themselves, we would reflect back on how far we had come together and I would ask how they thought counselling had helped, and they answered “You never tried to fix me, you just let me be me.”
It sounds so incredibly simple when you write it down on paper, and in many ways it is.
Sometimes I leave work and I am railing against the utter lack of resources available to us, the complete annihilation of funding in a world that is ever increasing need of mental health support. I feel like I’m in an industry where increasingly all we as a collective are managing to do is keep the tide at bay, placing ill equipped sticking plasters over problems that need serious investment and an overhaul of the entire education system to include, no, prioritise, mental health awareness.
But that’s not the real answer to the question posed. The real answer lies somewhere within those precious shared moments with a person who has been brave enough to share their pain with you. The answer lies within those moments when I leave work knowing that I made a difference. The answer, I think, is to do with human connection.
Katrina Foord is a qualified counsellor and psychotherapist working in primary and secondary schools in and around Brighton. With almost 20 years of experience working with children in various capacities, Katrina is passionate about bringing awareness of mental health into schools from very early on in order to promote, encourage and sustain a mentally healthy and resilient future generation.
A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.