What is an Intersectional Approach to Supporting Positive Mental Health and Self-Identity at School?

Hannah Wilson – Guest Blog
A former Headteacher of two start-up schools, one of which was the first school in Oxfordshire to receive the Gold Mental Health in Schools Award. She is the Co-Founder of Diverse Educators and she consults, trains and coaches.   

April 2021

During my time serving as a school leader, I cared deeply about our culture and ethos. We spent a lot of time reflecting on our school values, and how they shaped our inclusive behaviours. As a school we were committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, at the same time as being committed to mental health and wellbeing – both underpinned our strategic vision and our approaches for our curriculum, our staffing, our policies and our practices. This intersectional approach to who we are, how we feel about ourselves and each other, our awareness of our place in the world as global citizens, created our sense of belonging as both individuals and as a community.    

I now work independently – I am the Founder of Diverse Educators and I consult, coach and train with these two specialisms in mind. I find it hard to speak about one without reflecting on the other. For me this intersect is really important as we often consider mental ill-health in isolation from one’s identity, and we need to remember that individuals with a protected characteristic are more vulnerable to experiencing mental health issues, as a result of how authentic and accepted they feel.  

Why is identity important for wellbeing?

Various factors make up a person’s actual identity, including a sense of continuity, a sense of uniqueness from others, and a sense of affiliation based on their membership in various groups like family, ethnicity, and occupation. When we have a positive view of our identity within a group, we are more likely to relate well to other others in that group and feel positive emotions about ourselves. This social identity fulfils the psychological need for esteem from others and is essential for developing and maintaining levels of wellbeing.

How do identity struggles contribute to mental health problems in young people?

Struggling with various parts of our identity is also natural and normal. It takes time to develop an identity or sense of self and the traits we desire to nurture in ourselves may be challenging. Not having a strong sense of self or struggling with identity issues can lead to anxiety and insecurity. Our sense of self comes from our self-esteem, something I worked on with many of my students over the 19 years I spent teaching and leading in schools. The value we place on ourselves creates a positive self-image which in turn creates our sense of self-worth. When we feel loved by others and by ourselves, we also feel trusted and accepted which boosts our self-esteem. A strong self-identity increases our self-confidence and enables us to assert ourselves and exercise good boundaries with our family, friends, and partner. 

What are risk factors for developing mental health problems? 

Mental health problems affect about 1 in 7 children and young people which can include depression, anxiety and conduct disorders, often as a direct response to what is happening in their lives. But what does the data tell us about children and young people and their race, their gender and their sexual orientation and the intersect with their mental health?

A significant risk factor for a mental health problem manifesting is the experience of race, religion or sexuality. Anyone experiencing a mental health problem should get both support and respect. However, for many people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities this is still not the case. The reasons for this are complex but include systemic racism and discrimination as well as social and economic inequalities and mental health stigma. 

People from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities living in the UK are more likely to: be diagnosed with mental health problems; be diagnosed and admitted to hospital; experience a poor outcome from treatment. The disproportionate impact of coronavirus on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities has further highlighted the inequalities in the system and has made many people’s mental health worse at an already difficult time. Furthermore, research has found that children of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority heritage are suffering disproportionate damage to their mental health, as a result of the pandemic than their white peers. There has been a large rise in anxiety, stress and self-harm in non-white under 18s. 

Where to start when leading a whole school approach to mental health and race?

Some questions to consider as a school regarding the intersect between race and mental health:

  • How engaged are children and young people from black and minority ethnic communities in your mental health and wellbeing activities?
  • What are the barriers which put young people from black and minority ethnic groups off from accessing mental health services in your context?
  • How culturally sensitive are your mental health processes and services in being appropriate and acceptable to children and young people from diverse families?

Where to start when leading a whole school approach to mental health and self-identity?

Returning to the risk factors, we also need to consider the layers to our identity which are not always visible nor known. Young people establishing their self-identity do not always feel the psychological safety at home and at school to be out but one in every 25 Britons aged 16–24 years old identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Cross-sectional studies consistently report that sexual-minority young people have poorer mental health profiles than their heterosexual peers, including a higher prevalence of self-harm and suicide attempts. 

The pandemic has exacerbated many existing dangers and introduced a few new ones, in particular, social isolation may have been especially challenging for LGBTQ youth. They may have been quarantining with rejecting family members and have lost contact with supportive social networks. The nature of quarantining means that these problems may have been invisible to the school. Even before COVID-19, LGBTQ youth were at higher risk for depression, suicidality, and tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use than their heterosexual peers. 

Moreover, this increased risk stems from increased rates of rejection, discrimination, and victimisation. During the pandemic, the risk was further compounded by a loss of relationships in school, clubs, or other community venues where LGBTQ youth find support and affirmation. 

Some questions to consider as a school regarding the intersect between sexual orientation and mental health:

  • How engaged are children and young people from the LGBTQIA+ community in your mental health and wellbeing activities?
  • What are the barriers which put young people from the LGBTQIA+ community off from accessing mental health services in your context?
  • How have you made efforts to address gender and sexuality-based inequities so that they might be appropriate and acceptable for children and young people who identify as being LGBTQIA+?

How can you develop an intersectional approach to understanding mental health and self-identity?

As our schools re-open and our support systems are mobilised once again, we need to consider how we can support our marginalised youth groups to rebuild their sense of belonging. Some ways we can do this:

  • Recognising that representation matters and that we need to be intentional about the makeup of our teams so that there is increased visibility of diverse role models in our schools.
  • Reviewing school policies and practices for how inclusive they are in meeting the needs of all our children and young people so that they do not harm nor further alienate individuals with diverse lived experiences.
  • Creating safe spaces for young people to explore their self-identity and to surface their lived experiences to be supported and signposted to appropriate interventions. 
  • Developing resources and peer advocacy programmes that will empower young people to nurture their own resilience whilst at the same time engage them in supporting others.

Which is why Diverse Educators are collaborating with Worth-it Positive Education CIC on their Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme as we believe that by nurturing peer to peer relationships that we can build trust and increase feelings of belonging and connection for individual young people. The programme coaches them to develop their internal resources and strategies to learn how to develop positive relationships and positive support networks. Come and join us for our free webinars on April 27th to find out more.    

Interested in having Wellbeing Ambassadors in your School/Setting?
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Find out more about our Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme

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