Changing Isolation Into Integration

The Franklin Scholars staff recently engaged in a storytelling workshop. As part of the workshop, the topic of mental health and the impact of peer mentoring was brought to light. Following this, Lizabeth - a Programme Intern with Franklin Scholars - has reflected on this topic.

We are often drawn to the response of saying “I’m fine” when asked about our hardships. It seems to be an automatic reply because we never want to be seen as vulnerable or weak. It feels as if we need to be “on” all the time. Why burden someone else with our problems when they’ve got troubles of their own to deal with? “Maybe if I wear enough makeup, I’ll look pretty. Maybe if I just give in to peer pressure, I’ll be cool. Maybe if I laugh with them, they’ll no longer laugh at me.” These thoughts run through the minds of young pupils everyday but to the blind and naked eye, they go unnoticed. It is easy to put on a facade to mask the scars underneath. Everyone has their own story; everyone should be given the opportunity and space to share it

Maybe if I wear enough makeup, I’ll look pretty. Maybe if I just give in to peer pressure, I’ll be cool. Maybe if I laugh with them, they’ll no longer laugh at me.

It is no secret that going through adolescence can be tough on a pupil. Going through the transition from Primary to Secondary School and adolescence at the same time can be detrimental to a students’ social and emotional growth. They are faced with social pressures, new feelings, status changes and internal turmoil. Some pupils struggle with mental health and they, more often than not, don’t have an outlet to talk about their thoughts. This is because mental health is rarely discussed in everyday conversations. It can be hard and uncomfortable to openly talk about about something so personal. It isolates children and teenagers from their peers because they are made to think that something is “wrong” with them; that they need to be “fixed.” 

Statistics from the Independent find that rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70% in the last 25 years. The number of children and young people turning up in A&E with a psychiatric condition has more than doubled since 2009 (Bedell, 2016). This could be due to factors like the increase in technological advancement, the pressure to succeed in school, peer pressure, bullying, or outside influences. In 2016, almost all (93%) of teachers - who see their students just as much as parents do (sometimes even more if the student has full attendance) - reported that they have witnessed increased rates of mental illness among children and teenagers.

The peer mentoring programme here at Franklin Scholars has academic elements, such as literacy or numeracy, but focuses on social and emotional growth through social interactions, games, and guided sessions. Our programme introduces a way for pupils to express themselves as individuals and confide in someone else whom they can relate to, and vise versa, about their lives. Our mentors and mentees build a bond and relationships much more powerful than any classroom because they spend time with someone that they would not usually choose to spend time with. These sessions are very structured, which gives them more freedom to diverge from the activities and talk; which ultimately builds the friendship. 

Schools often choose to refer mentees who may be vulnerable to dips in academic progress and self confidence. Some may be disadvantaged in their circumstances and struggle to settle and adapt to new and changing environments. We incorporated this into our Theory of Change and, through our mentoring programme, mentees develop a range of social and emotional skills (particularly self-worth) which help them to better deal with different situations and tackle challenges. Mentors are specifically chosen because they have the skills needed to assist their mentee.

People change people through the smallest of actions; by the end of our programme, mentors have a better sense of leadership and responsibility. They feel inclined to take part in social action in the future because they have become role models for their mentees. The advocacy project shares that “Mentors often experience increased levels of empowerment, improved self-esteem, an increase in confidence and a renewed ability to cope with their own mental health.” Both parties in this relationship come out a different person than before. 

As one of our mentors, Yursa (Copthall Primary School), pointed out, “helping people doesn’t always mean giving advice. Sometimes, it’s just about listening.” You’d be amazed at how much someone opens up once you start asking the right questions and cultivate an environment where sharing is normal. Here at Franklin Scholars, we design our programmes to let pupils know that it’s okay not to be okay. We give them the opportunity to share with someone that they can trust and relate to. It is finally time to stop saying “I’m fine” and start saying “I will be.”

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