Children's Mental Health Week

by Chris Wright, Head of Health and Wellbeing, Youth Sport Trust

The phrase ‘children are so resilient’ is often banded around, but I wish that people would stop and think because there is much pointing to the fact that this simply isn’t true.

Throughout my work at the Youth Sport Trust, I often hear from teachers that the emotional and physical health of young people is declining and is a huge issue in schools.

We know that stress can often seem inescapable and be hugely detrimental not only to academic attainment but also to all round physical and mental health and wellbeing. Yet it is a reality for young people today.

I would argue that being resilient isn’t necessarily innate but is something we must all support children in striving for and is something a number of organisation are highlighting in this year’s Children’s Mental Heath Week, like the top tips being developed by Place2Be.

The theme of Children's Mental Health Week this year is 'building resilience' and teaching children to 'bounce forward' from life's challenges. The week aims to show that while we cannot always change children's circumstances, we can teach them the skills to cope with the difficulties life throws at them.

At the Youth Sport Trust, we believe the role of PE, school sport and physical activity is critical to this. Extensive research both from our own charity and partners has proven beyond all doubt that physical activity can be one of the most important outlets in decreasing stress and anxiety.

One area of stress that young people say they have to cope with is around exams, but on top of the testing they also face an enormous amount of peer, parental and school pressure. It is vital they have outlets like physical activity to counter this pressure.

Northamptonshire is addressing this issue head on. Last summer we launched a trailblazing scheme which could transform how schools impact on students' mental wellbeing through PE, school sport and physical activity. The strategy, funded by Northamptonshire’s Public Health Team, is investing in an approach to reduce the alarming number of adolescents that are being referred to specialist services for mental health illness across the county.

The Northamptonshire scheme demonstrates that the role of PE, school sport and physical activity goes far beyond just helping young people cope with exam stress because it actually helps build key skills at a crucial time. These are greatly valued by employers. The industry (CBI) is now telling us they are no longer interested in just qualifications, they want young people to enter employment demonstrating creativity, aspiration, resilience, empathy - the so-called “softer skills” that allow young professionals to operate and be a success in the workplace.

Secondary PE has a huge role to play as a subject that naturally lends itself to developing those life skills that are taught not caught and allow schools to produce well rounded young people with qualities beyond qualifications. My Personal Best is a new approach to how secondary PE is delivered and addresses the huge task we have in this country to make PE and sport more relevant and useful to the young people of today.

It is therefore clear that we must use the PE, school sport and physical activity environment not just as an outlet for stress. We must also use it as environment for increasing young people’s capacity and ability to learn and build life skills beyond qualifications that are critical for young people’s future prospects.

This year, in partnership with Time to Change, Comic Relief is trying to tackle mental health stigma amongst young people. As part of its Sport Relief campaign they have created learning resources to explore the issue further. Sport Relief is a great opportunity to use fundraising ideas to inject sport and physical activities in to your school calendar.

We should all be taking every opportunity we can to encourage young people to be more active. By investing in this, we will develop creative, aspirational, resilient and empathetic citizens that are ready to perform, fit for work and healthy for life.

And next time you hear that ubiquitous phrase ‘children are so resilient’ maybe you could stop to ask what support that child receives in helping them to be more resilient or if it’s merely an expectation adding extra pressure?