Organisers hope schools festival ‘could kickstart mental health revolution’

Two campaigners who have launched the country’s first day-long online festival devoted to wellbeing for students and teachers hope it is the start of “a mental health revolution in our schools and colleges”.

Jonny Benjamin and Louisa Rose have organised the Now and Beyond on Inside Out Day event on Wednesday to coincide with Children’s Mental Health Week, and have already seen more than 1,000 schools and colleges from across the UK and beyond sign up to the programme of workshops, teaching resources and expert sessions.

The event will allow teachers, their pupils and parents to access specialist materials and live seminars covering various areas of wellbeing, including a panel discussion with BBC Radio 1 presenter Katie Thistleton, rapper Shocka, and medical doctor and broadcaster Dr Radha Modgil.

The festival, which combines grant-giving mental health organisation Beyond and awareness campaign Inside Out Day, comes amid deepening worries about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on children, with schools and colleges largely shut to many pupils since last spring.

Research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Prince’s Trust this week found the pandemic has led to increased issues in mental health, with the number of young people with a probable mental illness rising from one in nine in 2017 to one in six.

Elsewhere, the annual report by the Children’s Commissioner for England found that while there had been an expansion of children’s mental health services over the past four years, such was the poor starting point that services are still nowhere near meeting the needs of many hundreds of thousands of children.

Mr Benjamin and Mrs Rose said their own struggles with mental health at a young age and into adulthood prompted the decision to create the wellbeing festival.

Mr Benjamin, who famously launched a campaign to find and thank the stranger who talked him down from Waterloo Bridge in 2008, told the PA news agency: “We need to start a conversation around mental health particularly given the time we are living in and the trauma that is happening – this collective trauma we have all been through – and we want everyone to be part of that.

“With this festival we are trying to look at the preventative side, and if there had been some prevention I may not have got to the stage where I almost took my life.”

Mr Benjamin, from north London and who turns 34 on Sunday, said: “Now it’s different. I still struggle, but I manage it. I’ve learnt tools I wish I learnt at school.

“I still become unwell, I was unwell, back in hospital in September, but it’s different now because I have the language, I can talk about it – I just wish I had it when I was young because it would have made so much difference.

“So we hope it (the festival) is the start of a mental health revolution in our schools and colleges, because we need it.”

Social media consultant Mrs Rose, 37, first came up with the idea of a festival because she wanted her two young children to learn how to express their feelings and emotions.

She said: “When I was in my late 20s, I was going through a traumatic event in my life, I became really unwell and I acted on it – I tried to take my own life.

“Gratefully it didn’t work and that was the start of my journey to good mental health maintenance.

“Life is full of ups and downs and actually it’s not about living in the fairy tale, it’s about managing it when it’s down.”

She said it was also important for the festival to recruit the skills of more than 300 experts in order to address mental health issues for parents and teachers.

Mrs Rose, originally from Glasgow and now living in north London, said: “We are acutely aware of teachers’ own wellbeing right now, the pressures they’re facing, the challenges and the lack of time and resources they have.

“We want this festival to help create attitudinal change – it’s not as challenging as I think people think it is to embed a positive mental health approach and culture.

“This is an incredibly challenging time for everybody, nobody has escaped from this. This is collective trauma.

“There is no shame in exploring what you’re feeling, talking with somebody you trust and to keep talking.”

Organisers said they want to support schools and colleges in the long term, with a fund designed to offer ongoing mental health services.

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