A Simple Question For Mental Health Week, Without A Simple Answer...

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and while I embrace the much needed recognition behind weeks which are dedicated to ‘awareness’, they can also seem a bit reductionist to me. What about the other 51 weeks of the year?

It does make for a busy diary for me though: l think I’m covering more miles during Mental Health Week than I have since pre-Covid, delivering training at three different events.

And a big part of what I’m exploring in all of those sessions is a question that doesn’t get asked anywhere near enough: What do we actually mean by ‘emotional wellbeing’?

We wouldn’t embark on improving our physical health without knowing what our goal was; increased speed, strength or stamina, weight-loss etc. And yet rarely does a programme with ‘wellbeing’ stamped on it truly articulate what it’s aiming to change for its recipients, whatever age they are.

Often what I hear described as wellbeing, more accurately, are ‘coping skills’. And while they’re absolutely necessary, coping is just one element of being well. 

Wouldn’t it be better if there was less to cope with? Even more so that the heart of mental health was prevention, protection and preservation?

It’s an oddity that, while most of us don’t only turn to exercise and nutrition once we become unhealthy, or wait for kids to get cavities before we tell them to brush their teeth, children’s mental health only tends to pop up on the radar only once they’re struggling.

And it’s a disservice to them, and ourselves, because there are SO many ways we can nurture good mental health, without any intervention at all. 

Which brings me back to my point about nailing what we mean by ‘wellbeing’, because very often we’re topping up the tanks of the children we live and work with (or maybe draining it) without even knowing.

I support many different settings with the process of defining and measuring wellbeing, and they all result in a slightly different framework created around their aims. The one that I created for Action for Children’s Arts (more on that work here) defines six wellbeing components – personal agency, sense of self, belonging, resilience, curiosity and emotional literacy – and, because it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m sharing it with you. 

If it proves useful for this week, please use it for the other 51 too. (If you want the PNG file, just email me: jo@wellwithinreach.co.uk).

This simple framework is accompanied by a straightforward, specific definition of each of the six components, ensuring there’s a shared understanding between everyone involved, instead of the subjectivity that so often skews our so-called evidence.

Yes, interventions will always be needed, but what’s really valuable about defining wellbeing is that it becomes very noticeable how easily we can affect change, just through our daily interactions.

For example, personal agency can be as simple as asking a child to make a decision – regardless of how seemingly insignificant that may be – to influence an outcome, to change something. These little experiences all plant a wellbeing seed, and each day brings copious opportunities to plant more.

And when you’re really specific about the changes you want to affect, it becomes 100% easier to evaluate as well: meaningfully and effectively (no smiley/sad faces or forms):.
There’s a very simple children’s self-assessment activity that comes with this framework, enabling children to creatively measure their own progress in all six areas.

This is where most people think ‘We wouldn’t have the time‘, but it takes all of five minutes to complete.

If you want to know more about developing your own fit-for-purpose definition and evaluation of wellbeing, just ASK!

But if you take nothing more from today’s blog post, just scribble down just one simple way that you (and your team) can make a small (or big!) difference to these six areas. If each morning just starts with a kind welcome, a smile, warm eye contact, each child being addressed by name, you’re cultivating a Sense of Belonging, everyday. It all counts.

Mental health doesn’t always need to be complicated, expensive, extra-curricular or borrow learning time.

Even better, the biochemistry of an emotionally well brain is as learning-ready as it will get!

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