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Opinion2nd November 2021

How ambassadors and cross-stitch have helped mental health at Ark Victoria

Throughout the pandemic, students have experienced worrying disruptions to their education, family loss or serious illness, increases in family members’ job insecurity, and isolation from family and friends. In many cases, the difficulties have triggered anxiety and mental health issues.

Protection of our students’ wellbeing, with a focus on their mental health, has been a high priority for our schools as part of Ark’s response to Covid-19 and we have called for greater investment in mental health support teams as part of an education recovery proposal that we designed with school leaders from across the sector.

Engaging with mental health at Ark Victoria

Laura Ayling, Assistant Head of Ark Victoria, talked to us about the mental health strategy at Ark Victoria in Birmingham and explained how students became involved in an art installation that has helped students get through these challenging times.

“At the heart of our strategy are our student mental health ambassadors. They’re helping to raise awareness and remove some of the stigma surrounding mental health in the school community. We have two ambassadors from each year groups (Year 3 to 11) chosen by their peers, and we now have more than 100 ambassadors.

Laura Ayling – Ark Victoria Academy

“We have also been involved in a doctorate project being led by Catherine Howard, our safeguarding link governor. It was based on mental health and therapeutic intervention, focusing on textiles and cross-stitch. Our ambassadors managed this and had 150 young people from Year 6 to Year 11 involved.

“We asked our ambassadors to design an installation to launch the school’s mental health awareness project, ‘Breaking the Chains of Poor Mental Health’. This is a visual metaphor of a ball and chain chosen by the students for how poor mental health can hold us back from having a whole happy life.

“The group decided that the ball would be black with a coloured stitch that reflected some mental health aspects; the first chain links were black, too, the colour of depression and low mood. We added new links in different colours and patterned fabrics stitched in white to show that the chain can be broken, and that changes can be made.

“The finished work is now more than 75cm in diameter and has 25 chain links attached. The coloured pieces used show the happier and healthier links and were made by 120 pupils who are now in Year 7.

“The involvement of so many young people and so many stitched pieces of work showed that no one is alone if they are struggling with poor mental health – we are all in it together.

“The installation was exhibited at a local mental health event at the Hive in Moseley. The students’ work was displayed in the front window. All students enjoyed being involved in the project.”

Opening up the conversation about mental health

Laura also explained how the school is helping students with mental health on a day-to-day basis.

“Students can often be caught unaware of their own mental health needs. We saw an increase in young people who desperately needed our help. We already had an excellent provision in place but were able to add extra layers of mental health support through Ark-funded training and resources.

“Many school staff were able to increase their mental health knowledge and have conversations with our young people experiencing issues like anxiety, depression, or a reluctance to engage with online or in-person learning.

“We had to destigmatise mental health struggles and let our students know that we could help, and we offered pastoral support and counselling to those who needed it. Students had a safe space to share their concerns, we could put the appropriate interventions in place, and we’ve seen a positive turnaround.”

What’s next?

On next steps for the school, Laura added, “We want to develop a programme where our ambassadors become peer supporters for other students in our school. We want to train them in mental health first aid to become a driving force within the school that helps students in crisis.

“We also hope that students can receive training from professionals from Kooth, a mental health online support service, and to begin a crisis line for young people to access after school.

“We’re encouraging our young people to open up about their mental health and speak freely. As a school community, I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved so far, and we’re heading in the right direction.”