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The Talking Mental Health Project for Schools: Small words, big concepts

Miranda Wolpert, Charlotte Payne and Jaime Smith share the thinking behind their new animation for primary schools to help children understand and talk about mental health issues.

In 2015, thanks to funding from Wellcome, we began the Talking Mental Health project. Our aim was to a create a short animation designed by children about how to talk about mental health and provide some materials for teachers to support its use in school. We wanted to achieve three things:

1. Find a way of describing mental health problems that was accessible to children, particularly 9-11 year olds
2. Help children and young people find best ways to talk about their own mental health problems
3. Help children and young people know how respond to friends' mental health problems

The structure of the animation and underlying concepts drew on our research and experience as clinicians, researchers and teachers at UCL and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families (AFNCCF). The animation itself was co-created by a talented team of artists at the Creative Research Collective, children and young people's mental health advocates at Common Room and 9-11 year olds at two schools in Hackney and Newark. The supporting materials were created by a team of teachers, researchers and clinicians at the AFNCCF.

Preliminary evaluation of the animation and accompanying lesson plan, conducted by the Evidence Based Practice Unit, explored use with over 150 children in year 5 across 13 schools in England. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with children reporting that they were more likely to seek help from teachers and peers after viewing the animation. The fact that it was created by children themselves was positively noted by many who watched it.

"I liked it because it was made by year 6s, it wasn't like an adult that made it and they like knew all about it but the year 6s had a lesson like us about it... it's more like listening to yourself, you know what they've learnt and you can see how much they've learnt".

Describing Mental Health
The distinction is made between "big" vs "small" feelings which is used to distinguish between everyday emotions, thoughts and feelings, that may themselves be large or small but do not interfere in a significant way with getting on with life ("small feelings"). This is sometimes illustrated as balloons that come and go. These are contrasted with overwhelming feelings which can feel difficult to shift and impair functioning ("big feelings"). These are sometimes illustrated as fog. The language of big and small feelings is a way to try to capture these distinctions using a simple language to help both children and adults. One of the key aims here was to get away from the idea that mental problems are something other people have , and rather to see it as something that can happen from time to time to anyone.

"I think this lesson has taught me so much... I literally had no idea what it was, I thought it was just somebody being ill and I didn't know at all that it could happen to everyone".

" I found it quite like something that you could get really into or like inspired by 'cause I didn't know much about mental health before, I kinda thought maybe it's something to do with someone that has maybe a problem or is disabled but it's completely different to that... you don't just have but something you can build... which is something that can happen to everyone"

2) Children talking about Mental Health
It can be hard for children (or indeed adults) to know how to open up conversations when struggling with mental health difficulties. In the animation, we were keen to provide young people with some phrases or hooks to help them open up conversations about mental health. "Please help me I am really struggling". "I have been having a really hard time lately" "Can I talk to you". The animation also explores the possibilities of talking to a range of trusted people and tries to encourage the child to think of the pros and cons of each and select carefully who they think might be most helpful.

"The small video made me want to speak out more, I liked it".

"I learnt that if I have any worries I should talk to someone before they get bigger and bigger and they're up like the volcano"

3) Children listening and responding to others
We felt it key to include a section in the animation on how to be a good listener. The children came up with some great tips, such as 'sit side by side' and 'give them your time and attention'. To extend this, one of the activities in the lesson plan is an exercise in pairs involving one child trying to tell their partner something, while the partner ignores them, talks about themselves or yawns. During the pilot, the children found this exercise a powerful example of how to listen well.

"I learnt if you were talking to me and I was just turning around it would feel a bit like I wasn't listening and so I learnt that I need to listen and not just say cool because it could be something sad that happened"

When one child opens up to another it can feel quite scary or overwhelming for children. Reminding them they can seek help from an adult is important. It is also helpful to remind them that they don't have to come up with answers for their friend, just listening and helping them find a trusted adult is enough.

"If I see someone who is sad or angry I know what to do now so now I can help them... I would see how they feel and if it was bad I would tell someone if it was just like a small thing I wouldn't I'd just try and make them better and like be a good friend"

4) Advice for parents and carers
During the preliminary evaluation of the materials, parents and carers requested advice to support them in having conversations with their children about mental health. In response to this and with support from Jo Malone London, our team produced a leaflet of Top tips for talking for parents and carers. These included how to make conversations about mental health and feelings an everyday part of life, and some simple ways to start these conversations such as "I'm happy to listen if you need a chat".

We are very grateful to Wellcome for funding this innovative project and for all their support and vision throughout the process.

To download the animation and accompanying resources, click here

Let us know how you find it!

Join the conversation on Twitter: #TalkingMentalHealth @AFNCCF