With Children’s mental health week starting today, 6th February, it’s perfect timing to share perspectives and experience on emotional wellbeing and mental health. I noticed the initiative, Men for Mental Health, and it struck a chord. As a Public Health professional, I am well aware of the need for new approaches in mental health. Having previously managed a team at Mind, and commissioned services from School Nursing to Mindfulness in the NHS and Local Government, I have spent the past ten years in ‘the system’, advocating for improvements in mental health. In this article, I focus on the programme I founded, The Wellbeing Alphabet™, and share publicly for the first time in writing, why I developed it, and how I know it can help children.
The Wellbeing Alphabet™ was developed out of a genuine need that I had as a parent. A few years ago, I had what you might call a challenging year. I separated from my son’s father under difficult circumstances, lost my grandfather who was like a second dad, and also our beloved family dog. Adults often struggle with the emotion of loss- the understanding, acceptance, and adjustment. Consider then, how the sudden exodus of former life figures, might affect a young child. Children have often not developed the same resilience, logic and grit that we strive for as adults. As a mum, my priority was clearly to support my son. With professional experience in mental health and wellbeing, I assumed we would come through this with relative ease. What I had not foreseen, was the surprising lack of empathy and mis-judgement of others.
The past few years opened my eyes to how imperfect ‘the system’ is, in supporting children through bereavement and loss. We did have some amazing support, and those people made a significant difference, but overall it was far from desirable. The lack of compassion and understanding we faced astounded me. I think the hardest moment was when a so-called childcare setting, physically pushed us out of the building. I received a message from the manager with “wellbeing” in inverted commas, as though it was a made-up concept. The final straw came when a clinician stated that they did not know what to suggest, I was told that since I was a professional, I should work out an intervention myself. After a while of searching for the right support I was tired, but would not give up on finding the bright bubbly emotion in my son that I knew was still there. One night we sat and cried, I held my son so tight and said “we are a team, everything will be o.k., I will never give up on you.” My son hugged me tightly, gave me a high five, and I knew he believed in me.
I’m a very determined person and the clinicians’ words were on my mind that night, so I set to designing an intervention. Of course, I supported my son from day one, but things had intensified and I needed a new approach. Night, after night I spoke to my son about how he felt, and how he wanted to feel. We explored positive emotion and what happiness meant. I found that verbal exploration worked to an extent, but when we used the form of art in emotional discovery, it opened a whole new world of expression. We explored drama, arts, crafts, music and dance, and after a couple of months we had developed what turned into a programme of wellbeing words and activities from A to Z, The Wellbeing Alphabet™. The change in my son was amazing. He was once again the super-happy, calm little boy that I knew he always was. Others’ noticed the dramatic turn-around and interest developed in the approach I used. The impact in my son was not only evident in emotions and behaviour, but in academics and empathy towards others, which accelerated to outstanding.
With such an eye-opener into the reality of children’s support, I knew I had to use my experience to make a difference. I kept wondering what happens to all the children in similar situations who don’t have the benefit of a health professional for a parent. With 1 in 10 children and young people in the UK at risk of a mental health problem, it is time for change. CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) are stretched to capacity, and many schools are pressured with the demands of statutory curriculums and additional provision. Not long after my experience, I Tutored in a provision for children with complex emotional and behavioural needs. I had real hope for how I could make a difference in their children’s lives, only to find out the following week that funding from the service had been pulled and the children would return to full days in a mainstream school, some with no specialist support. I followed up with the body that had decommissioned the service only to be told that it was necessary due to budget cuts. I do not believe that the mental health crises is entirely due to funding, but to a combination of inappropriate prioritization of funds, and a range of complex social challenges which face many people growing up today. My campaigning has certainly not made me popular with various figures in authority, because it uncovers flaws and truths- however it is so important to keep fighting for justice and I will always do that.
I left my career in the public sector and established my own health and wellbeing consultancy in 2015. I knew that approaches such as The Wellbeing Alphabet™ were vital, and I would ensure the programme reached children whatever it took. I produced a DVD and teaching programme which was piloted with schools, professionals, children’s and parents. Observing global conflict and variance in people’s perception of wellbeing, gratitude and behaviour, I had a strong conviction that global approaches to wellbeing were needed. I had the wellbeing words translated into 23 languages, became an accredited member of The Council of British International Schools, and consulted on wellbeing with schools in 44 countries. I am now working with a UK network of universities and recently met with academics from Harvard to discuss broader pilots of the programme. Sadly, case studies are not sufficient for strategic funding, the system responds to data so that is the bridge I am now crossing. The innovation and need for this type of early intervention has been recognized and I know that it will reach children worldwide in the near future.
I currently teach The Wellbeing Alphabet™ in primary school and am piloting a version in secondary. The impact is amazing. I can think of one child who would barely speak in the first session, and now they are the first to express how they are feeling. The support from teachers has been overwhelming and they praise the rapid impact. I offer one to one coaching to students too and feel that encouragement is often the key that can make a huge difference in lives. I also provide corporate training, particularly around stress reduction, and recently raised funds for Young Minds through the Dry January campaign. Improving mental health requires recognition that life affects people in different ways. Individuals are all unique, and support needs to be diverse. There is not a one-size-fits-all in mental health. Early intervention in emotional wellbeing is powerful, because it equips people with the skills to recognize and express their feelings. In support of children’s mental health week, this week I am launching a range of new services in Darlington including Wellbeing Arts and Crafts clubs in schools and community settings, and a new monthly Wellbeing Café at the Clervaux Bakery. We need to normalize emotional learning and part of that is taking new approaches into the community, and making wellbeing part of everyday conversation.
I love helping others find their happiness, so please feel free to contact me on Nathalie@lalinguistica.com. Remember you are never alone, support is one word away, and your life matters! For further information visit www.lalinguistica.com or www.thewellbeingalphabet.com
– Nathalie Carter, Director of La Linguistica global consultancy in Wellbeing, Health and Education, and Founder of The Wellbeing Alphabet™