Mental Health Champion Natasha Devon Visits Bede’s
On Wednesday 19 April, Bede’s welcomed inspirational guest speaker Natasha Devon MBE to speak to teachers, pupils and parents across three separate afternoon sessions.
This rousing day of presentations and activities followed last term’s visit by teenage brain expert Dr Rosemary Taylor as part of Bede’s Personal Tutor programme.
An ex-model and self-proclaimed ‘Essex girl’, Natasha, who writes for Cosmopolitan and the TES, was appointed by the Department for Education as the UK’s first-ever mental health tsar in 2015. Her website is www.natashadevon.com.
After criticising the government’s testing regime at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) in May of last year however, Natasha was informed that her role was being abolished – a move which surprised and frustrated many, including Natasha herself.
While at Bede’s, Natasha’s first appointment was in the Recital Room after lunch where she spoke to teachers as part of a lively and enjoyable question and answer session.
After this, the whole school travelled over to the Multi-Purpose Hall in Bede’s Sports Complex where Natasha led a ranging and witty presentation to what she said was her “biggest-ever crowd.”
During the first part of her talk, Natasha relayed how starkly and inadequately the topic of mental health had been covered during her own time at school before relating her own struggles with bulimia nervosa and social anxiety disorder.
She discussed how, through counselling, she had come to understand her anxiety and had gone on to name it Nigel after the profoundly divisive ex-leader of the UK Independence Party.
Having come to understand ‘Nigel’, she then explained how she had formed The Self Esteem Team with two friends, Grace Barrett and Nadia Mendoza, in 2013.
Since then, the group has worked to deliver workshops in schools and colleges on mental health, body image and exam stress, appearing across the media and leading awareness drives including 2015’s Switch On The Light campaign in association with celebrities including comedian Steven Fry, musician Professor Green and vlogger Charlie McDonnell.
Through a range of videos, anecdotes and a smattering of statistics, Natasha then detailed the universality of mental health in an engaging, evocative and amusing presentation.
“Everyone has mental health just as everyone has physical health,” Natasha explained, “but when I was at school we were presented with such extreme examples, including drug addicts and ex-prisoners, that we didn’t feel informed. We felt scared.”
She went on to talk about the rise in mental health issues related to young people, exploring the distinctions between girls, who are statistically much more likely to seek help for issues related to mental health, and boys, who are more likely to stoically suffer in silence.
“Men aged between 20 and 49 in the United Kingdom are now more likely to die as a result of suicide than any other cause of death,” she explained.
“This suggests that, rather than boys not having the same mental health needs as girls, they are just not talking about their problems or their feelings.”
As the talk continued, Natasha explained how the gap between how people see themselves and how they want to be seen grows, mental health issues flourish.
“It’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea, but we spend our whole lives, right from infancy, building up sets of unconscious beliefs. We learn about what faces and bodies ‘should’ look like and how things ‘should’ be, and as children are not equipped to identify between what is real or sensible and what is, honestly, impossible.
“In this gap, between our sense of self and our desires, there is money to be made. As a result, our culture bombards us with imagery and products which are often quite dangerous. At the same time, our conscious mind, which is much smaller than our unconscious mind, struggles to close the gap between what we think and what we believe.”
Natasha detailed how the explosion of social media has compounded these issues, and about how the habits of teenagers, who spend an average of 6 hours a day online, make them particularly vulnerable - right at the time in their lives when many are ill-equipped to cope with the messages they are receiving.
“I often speak to people who say, ‘I know I shouldn’t feel this way’ or ‘I know that what I think is wrong’ and that can be hugely frustrating – being aware that you have picked up ideas that sit in your unconscious brain guiding your judgements, battling with your conscious ideas.
“The good news, though, is that you can unlearn some of these ideas and, through talking, retrain your brain to deal with the challenges you’re facing.”
As well as identifying warning signs, and discussing the evocative example of James Mabbett, a friend of Nadia Mendoza's who took his own life at aged 24, Natasha finished her talk with three pieces of advice:
- Question what you see online and in the media, asking yourself if it's helping you to be the person you want to be
- Find an environment where you feel comfortable speaking about your emotions with a person you can trust.
- Discover an activity that enables you to communicate how you are feeling without words (such as through sport, art, dance and/or music)
She then received a resounding and thoroughly deserved round of applause from her captive audience.
For her last presentation of the day, Natasha spoke to Bede’s parents in the Recital Room in the early evening.
As well as recapping much of what she had spoken to the pupils about earlier in the day, she also explored ideas around how to help children develop emotional literacy.
With the key words for all parents to remember being, “Tell me more,” she spoke of how mums and dads should try to model the behaviour they would like to see in their children, listening without making judgements, asking open questions, and pointing out ways to further support and advice.
“Children need boundaries,” she explained, “but let them have freedom, too. That’s how they learn and how they can come to understand what they are exposing themselves to.”
Everyone at Bede’s is extraordinarily thankful to Natasha for her time and for sharing her expertise with us.
We now look forward to Natasha’s return trip to Upper Dicker, during which she will run a series of Self-Esteem Team workshops, later in the year.