Counselling by Nicola Stewart

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Welcome to my blog!


Being a mental health specialist and trainer is a varied and rewarding role.  Read my thoughts on current press, pace and progress regarding children's mental health and the support services available to families.

By Nicky Stewart, Oct 12 2019 11:55AM

Ah, the 1990's a great decade for music! If like me you are in your late forties, you may have been a 90s clubber, out singing and dancing to the (at the time) controversial lyrics from the American hiphop girl group 'Salt-N-Pepper' classic, inviting us all to "Talk about sex". 'Salt' (Cheryl James) was interviewed for Rolling Stone magazine in 1991, "The song was about communication and talking about a subject that nobody wants to talk about.". Fast forward nearly 30 years and I think Salt-N-Pepper may be pleased their mantra did get us all talking about and normalising a conversation about sex. As as society we can now openly discuss safe sex as well as have RSE included on the school curriculum. Now how about we change that lyric to "Let's talk about death, baby"? Doesn't quite have the same ring eh? But it is a needed conversation...

By Nicky Stewart, May 31 2019 02:17PM

I enjoy baking. Now, I'm no Mary Berry, but I do know what goes into baking a good carrot cake. I always add walnuts - they make me happy - that surprise crunch and texture within the moistness of the sponge. Then there's the cream cheese frosting, which encases the baked delight! The ingredients put into this recipe all together make a finshed result that appeals to all the senses: it looks good, tastes good, smells good, feels good, and the 'Mmmmm' chorus upon eating sounds good! This works for me as a metaphor for wellbeing (wellbeing: the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy). Everyone has their own recipe for their own wellbeing. So how do we all agree on the ingredients? My favourite bake is carrot cake, whilst it may not be yours, how do we ensure everyone gets the bake they enjoy best? Easy...we get them to choose their own ingredients, bake it themselves, then reflect on the outcome.

In September 2018 I was appointed Wellbeing Lead for a thriving independent co-education prep school in Kent. My role was to introduce a programme that enabled staff and pupils to have the tools needed to create and feel their own sense of wellbeing. As a school counsellor I have had the pleasure of working with children in a school setting for the last 12 years, while supporting them to reach their desired outcomes and goals. I have seen first hand that given the right conditions anyone can thrive. Carl Rogers, a pioneer of person-centred / humanistic therapy said:

"It is that the individual has within himself or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering his or her self-concept, attitudes and self-directed behavior - and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided" (1980, p.115-117).

Applying the Rogerian principles of congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy I set about creating the ingredients to a wellbeing programme that would give the whole school community the tools needed to create their own sense of wellbeing.

Having worked as counsellor in both independent and state maintained schools I have been able to see the inner workings of both sectors. I began my career working for Place2Be - 'a children's mental health charity providing school-based support and in-depth training programmes to improve the emotional wellbeing of pupils, families, teachers and school staff.' This role gave me insight into the value of supporting everyone within the school community; pupils, staff, and parents through targeted therapeutic interventions, training, and education.

As an Integrative Therapist I was able to see the value of play and metaphor within my own approach to counselling as I developed my own Integrative model 'Affect Awareness Therapy'. Using this approach I ran a contract for the London Borough of Bexley during their Extended Schools initiative between 2009-11, which offered pupils accross 33 different primary and secondary schools the opportunity to have access to short term, goal focused counselling. During this time I worked closely within pastoral teams where we would together identify the children who would benefit from this 1:1 support. Having spent thousands of hours with children supporting them to reach their goals I was able to gather a huge amount of feedback on what made children happy. During my career I have found that these 5 are key for children:

1. Having a sense of their own value in a community, whether that be family, school or the wider community.

2. Feeling heard and respected within their families, amongst their peers or within the classroom.

3. Knowing the tools needed to regulate their own feelings and emotions.

4. Understanding who supports them and how to access support when needed.

5. Having healthy role models that they respected and wanted to emulate.

These 5 key points informed my continued research on what is needed to achieve a sense of positive wellbeing. Exploring what other research was available led me Foresight's ‘Mental capital and wellbeing’ project (2008) which considered how to improve everyone's mental capital and mental wellbeing through life. The research suggests that a small improvement in wellbeing can help to decrease some mental health problems and also help people to flourish. This document, produced by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) on behalf of Foresight, sets out 5 actions to improve personal wellbeing:

- connect

- be active

- take notice

- keep learning

- give

Taking these five actions I was able to create a framework within school in which staff and pupils could build upon. Within the senior management team (SMT) we discussed how we could implement actions to support each of the 5 ways to wellbeing starting with staff.

1. Connect: we offer staff social evenings; a book club; self development sessions; activites; Pets as Therapy Dogs in school; staff drop-in sessions with me; supervision sessions; counselling; a wellbeing network with local schools all sharing good practice in supporting our young people with their mental health and wellbeing - TWSWN

2. Be active: Weekly sessions of yoga, swimming and circuit training.

3. Take notice: I started a wellbeing Wednesday email reminder for staff to focus on how they attend to their own wellbeing sending tips on subjects such as: sleep; mindfulness; connecting with nature; getting outside; focusing on the positives.

4. Keep Learning: I run a monthly self development session inviting staff to find out more about subjects such as; attachment, stress management, alternative and complementary therapies, mindsets, Transactional Analysis. We invite staff to share their hidden talents and lead a session on their area of expertise. We have an aromatherapist, crystal reiki therapist, mindfulness coach and many more talents amongst the staff. We have also given every member of staff the opportunity to train as a Youth Mental Health First Aider.

5. Give: as a school we support many charitable endeavours. Staff also volunteer to give their time to these causes. I am a MHFA England Youth Mental Health Instructor so we also offer free places to local state-maintained schools to attend a course we run from the school site.

Having all this available for last 8 months has led to a cultural shift in school. One staff member said to me,

"I thought when you were appointed Wellbeing Lead that you would be here to help us with problems but what you have actually done is give us the tools needed to solve our own - this is fantastic, and has really changed the atmosphere at school"

The nature of teaching means workloads are heavy and even increase at peak periods such as report writing and exam marking but when individuals are able to identify what ingredients they need to support their own wellbeing and put in place some good self care that works for them, this helps manage the stress. Every school will be different, but I feel given the right conditions, and having your SMT/SLT on board supporting a new culture of wellbeing can really have a positive impact for your whole school community. I have found this first year to be a great learning curve - we will take what has worked well and build on it. It has shown us that we can all find the ingredients to create and enjoy our own choice of cake! (NB: Mine is always carrot cake with walnuts!)

My next blog will focus on the benefits for pupils..

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