LGIU’s Alice Creasy talks to Jacqueline Cassidy, Director of Place2Be for Scotland and Wales. Place2Be is a children’s mental health charity with over 25 years of experience working with pupils, families and staff in UK schools.
This article is part of a week of reflection on the past year and what it has meant for individuals, communities and local government. Unlocked: local stories from a global pandemic.
Alice: It’s been a year since the first lockdown in the UK and in light of this at LGIU we are taking time to reflect on different people’s experiences of the last year.
To kick off, it would be great if you could describe some of the real-life impacts of Covid on the communities that you support, both short and potentially in the longer term.
Jacqueline: It’s been a really challenging time for children and their families throughout the pandemic, and particularly this latest lockdown. We’ve seen a lot of increased anxiety in the children and young people that we support. In secondary schools, we’re seeing young people who have increased thoughts around self-harm and suicidal ideation.
There’s a lot of anxiety that’s coming from the family context, for example where families have been pushed into poverty or families who were already living in poverty who are increasingly impacted as a result of the pandemic. Of course, there is also the more generalised anxiety about the health of their family and relations as a result of Covid. All of that difficulty and challenge comes into school with children and young people, and we’re trying to help children, young people and school staff deal with that.
Now that children are going back to school we expect to see a similar pattern as at the end of the first lockdown with a honeymoon period where they are really excited and happy to be back at school, to be rebuilding relationships and renewing friendships, but after a few weeks slowly things start to emerge as they settle back in. We have a service called Place2Talk where children can just select to go and see someone to have a talk at lunchtime or break time. We’re seeing a lot more take-up of that service, where children just want to come and have a chat about what’s happening for them and share their thoughts and feelings which helps to make those feelings more manageable.
Alice: As an organisation, how have you adapted to Covid and that growing demand for your services? It must have been difficult, not being able to do things in person and having to switch everything online, particularly with the knowledge that many people might not have the same access to digital infrastructure.
Jacqueline: During the first lockdown what we did was we very quickly moved to a digital delivery that focused on checking in with children and families. We were making sure that the children and their families were okay and giving them a chance to talk to somebody but in a quite a general way rather than counselling or therapeutic work. When schools re-opened we were able to go back to delivering services in schools and that was really fantastic.
In this current lockdown, we’ve been able to start delivering our therapeutic services virtually as well. We’ve been delivering our services, including one to one counselling, group work and other therapeutic interventions, as well as the check-ins where children and families have needed those. There are obviously huge limitations for people who don’t have digital access. We have been very fortunate in Scotland because I think most children have been given a device if they didn’t have access to one previously. But there are issues with families sharing a device, issues with data and also just when you’re in a small space shared with several people, just trying to find some privacy is challenging so we’ve often had to do check-ins with children and families. Hopefully once we’re back in schools we’ll have more opportunity to see people face to face and to support them therapeutically.
Alice: And have you done much work with school staff over the last year?
Jacqueline: We’ve done a lot of work with school staff in the partner schools where we’ve been working for the past 20 years. Working with staff is a really important part of our approach. We take a holistic, child-centred approach which is about supporting the child’s mental health needs, as well as supporting the people around them to make sure that they’re able to support those needs too. Place2Think is something we’ve been doing in schools for years. It’s a place where a teacher or a head teacher can take some time out to think about what’s happening in their classroom and in the school that’s affecting the mental health needs of children and young people or an individual child or a group of children. It’s a reflective space where they can work through some of the challenges, and come up with solutions or ways of dealing with situations.
We’ve been doing Place2Think in our schools, but during the pandemic we’ve been doing it virtually. As part of funding from Scottish Government, we’ve been able to offer Place2Think for teachers across Scotland to come together in groups of up to eight, and have a series of sessions where they can reflect on what’s been happening for them, for the children and people they work with and then looking at some of the solutions or some of the ways that they can deal with those situations, so that’s been brilliant.
We’ve also be running our Mental Health Champions Foundation Programme, which is a UK-wide online mental health programme for school staff. It’s a series of modules that support teachers’ understanding of children’s mental health and introduce approaches to promote positive wellbeing in schools. You can do it in your own time and at your own pace, but it’s facilitated by a trained clinician. We’ve had fantastic uptake of that, which has been brilliant. We’ve got 50,000 places available across the UK, and we’re reaching capacity – it’s been great to see that kind of response.
We also have a series of webinars around topics like self-care, dealing with bereavement, and handling challenges around self-harm, and our website is full of classroom resources to support return to school and positive wellbeing.
Alice: What’s been the impact on staff at Place2Be?
Jacqueline: They’ve risen to the challenge, they’ve been amazing. They’ve transformed the way they work and they did it so quickly and so willingly. Our team are so focused on meeting the needs of children and really supporting them and they wanted to be able to do that in whatever way was possible. They’ve been brilliant. There’s been a lot of really hard work and tough times, and people juggling their own family circumstances and also meeting the needs of the children, families and school staff that they work with. One of our core values is perseverance and I would say there has been a huge demonstration of perseverance by our staff. I am really, really proud of our response to the pandemic.
Alice: And as an organisation, are there spaces for staff to decompress?
Jacqueline: As you would expect with a mental health charity we’ve got lots of different options, and a lot of thought has been put into how we support staff. All of our, clinical team have supervision and that’s an opportunity to bring what’s been happening for them in schools to a clinical supervisor to help them work through the challenges of their work. As well as self-care and mindfulness opportunities, we also have a telephone-based wellbeing service as well to support staff with their own mental health needs as well. So there is a range of support in place.
Alice: I wonder if there’s learning in that for other industries that aren’t particularly mental-health-focused. I was speaking to a friend yesterday about the fact that it feels like there is just no escape or distraction from work, no real opportunity to decompress. Regardless of what you are doing for work, I think for a lot of people it’s in your head all the time at the moment, and trying to create space for people to talk about any issues they are having is really important.
Jacqueline: I agree, we’re really missing that and it’s so hard to replicate. So the example is that in schools at the moment, you can’t go into the staff room, or if you go into the staff room, it is a limited number of people at any time. Whereas in the past you might have had a tricky lesson with challenging behaviour and it’s all going a bit pear-shaped, then you go into the staff room and you just have that time to offload to your colleagues; somebody might have some helpful advice, or some people just listen to you and that’s enough. And then you go back into it after the break and you’re ready to do it again. And that is absolutely missing, because you can’t use the staff room. So that’s what we’re trying to do with Place2Think by providing a kind of virtual staff room space for that decompression. I think you’re absolutely right, we just need that space where we can just talk about what’s been tricky, and difficult and just get that support from colleagues, and also, as you said, just someone listening to you, I think sometimes is what you need.
Alice: Absolutely, and just to get some perspective, it’s so easy to overthink things at the moment and blow them out of proportion. Going forward how has the crisis impacted service delivery long-term?
Jacqueline: We’re expecting there to be an increase in need so we are anticipating that and I think we’re in a really good place to respond to that and support it.
Also, I think there are some really positive legacy pieces like the fact that we can now deliver digitally and virtually, and that we’ve developed those skills means that we can now do remote delivery. An example of how that is being put to use is at the moment we are looking at supporting some schools in the Highlands via a virtual service which is really positive and that means that going forward, we can meet the needs of rural and remote communities, be it in the North East of Scotland or in rural Kent, which is positive outcome from the pandemic.
Alice: Are there any key lessons from the past year?
Jacqueline: People are much more willing to talk about their mental health. Even in different sectors like the world of banking, people are more willing to talk about their mental health and their mental health needs. Because it’s become front and centre really, it’s one of the biggest impacts of the pandemic so I think it’s a real positive that we’re beginning to normalise the conversation about our mental health and we’re beginning to talk about in the same way that we might talk about physical health, and that it is okay to talk about it and be open about it. Something that’s been a real positive, and certainly something that we would want to keep, is the virtual piece of being able to meet needs across a whole range of geographies.
Pre pandemic, 1 in 6 children had mental health challenges, so we’ve known for a long time that it’s really important to support children’s mental health, and to help those around them in their schools to help create mentally healthy schools where children and young people can thrive. I think this year has highlighted the importance of children’s mental health and wellbeing, and that it is the building block for their learning and development. We need to remember that as we return to school and begin recovery.