Stress self-help – as easy as 1-2-3.

I don’t think I will be surprising anyone involved in the care and education of young people when I say that mental health concerns are at the most alarming levels in recorded history. Referrals to CAMHS are through the roof, suicide ideation is on the rise and schools across the country are grappling with what to do with mobile phones and social media in the face of an epidemic of anxiety.

All of this has been brought sharply into relief for me in my new role as pastoral lead and one of the designated safeguarding leads in my new school this term. It is not that there is a greater prevalence of issues in my school (our statistics for self harm, anxiety and reported bullying are still below the national average), but that the job itself brings me daily into contact with our more vulnerable pupils. It is also abundantly clear that being in a relatively affluent, rural independent school does not act as an armour plating against mental health concerns (in fact, the link between these concerns and a boarding environment is an interesting topic in itself, although not for here).

We are, however, blessed with a full-time counsellor and a health centre which is staffed 24/7 – fantastic resources when you consider what your average school can offer. They have been busy. My previous school at one stage had five counsellors on its books, and yet they were also almost always fully booked. So, whilst it is great to have fully qualified mental health professionals to hand for when things get serious, there is also an unsustainable element of supply-and-demand to consider. It may also be true that the more resources you invest in, the more cases you identify and refer, which accounts for some (but only some) of the rise in the alarming statistics.

Like so many other schools, we are also trying to instil that en vogue nebulous buzzword ‘resilience’ in our pupils and I wanted to develop a common language by which everyone in the school could speak in a taboo-free way about anxiety, stress and mental health concerns, as well as offering some simple, self-help tools to help individuals firstly recognise their mood, and try to arrest a decline into serious anxiety, or worse.

I also wanted to challenge the loose way in which people use the term stress – ‘I’m so stressed’ becoming a generic moan for whenever things get a bit busy or some academic pressure is applied.

The result were some traffic light cards which split mood into 4 levels – see below. Hopefully these are self explanatory, even if not exhaustive.

mood cards


The theory behind the Level 123 cards was not entirely unfounded, but was inspired by a talk from Simon Wessely (President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists) at the IPEN Conference ( in which he spoke about the natural human response in the face of crisis.

He made the point that the first people we turn to in times of crisis are not professionals, but actually those close to us – this is represented by Level 1 on the cards. Secondly, and when things are more perhaps serious than just ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’, a network of people who are more experienced, but also aware of the relevant social dynamic, come into play. He used the example of soldiers suffering from PTSD who benefitted from help from those who had also served in the military and could empathise with their own situation. On my cards, I suggest pupils at level 2 talk to experienced adults such as parents, school nurses or matrons. Level 3 are the genuinely serious mental health concerns which need to be referred immediately to medical professionals, and school staff should do all they can to refer these up, rather than trying to deal with them on their own.

At every level, some easy practical ideas are given, which I hope may allow for young people (and indeed adults) to shift themselves back from a level 1 to a level 0, or from a level 2 back to level 1, rather than sliding down into professional territory and adding to those alarming statistics. Above all, just a recognition of mood and an increased sense that, at levels 0,1 and even 2, we have a choice of how we deal with adversity and can take control of our own lives.

We followed up the Level 123 Stress cards with a second graph – more of an impressionistic visual aid than hard science, let it be understood – which shows how mood fluctuates on a daily, weekly and even hourly basis, and that it is very normal for anyone to go up and down between around 3-8 without this being any sort of concern. My wife is very good at noticing when I am dipping towards level three and either feeds me or kicks me out on a run, both of which improve my mood without fail!

mood fluctuation graph

The colours on the second graph do correspond to the colours on the Mood cards (annoyingly, the numbers do not, but I don’t think this is too much of a worry).

I think it will be hard to measure the impact of the cards themselves, but it has been nice to hear the Level 123 being used by colleagues and pupils – anything which makes it easier to talk about feelings, in my book, can’t be a bad thing.









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