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Shoulder-to-Shoulder With Boys’ Mental Health
Aldwickbury School

Guest blog: Helen Pendell, Head of Individual Development

Aldwickbury is a member of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition. In November, we partnered with writer and activist Natasha Devon MBE to deliver a Keynote Speech on Boys’ Mental Health. Natasha’s views on mental health are always thought-provoking and fascinating to listen to.

Mental health misconceptions

Natasha opened by suggesting that perhaps we have been looking at the subject wrongly to begin with. A well-known statistic often wheeled out when tackling the issue, is that 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health problem during their lifetime. Straight away, she suggests, we are saying that the issue is only relevant to a quarter of the population. In fact, if you view mental health as a continuum – just as physical health is a continuum of fitness, we are all likely to have periods where we experience a degree of pressure mentally.

The issue is exacerbated when dealing with the issue of men’s mental health. Natasha’s research shows that women are more likely to receive a diagnosis of depression and that two-thirds of treatments and hospitalisations attributed to mental health are by women.  In the speech, she tackled why she believes that it is a lack of identification of mental health conditions in men, rather than mental health conditions being more prevalent in women that led to this situation.

Aldwickbury boys

Dealing with emotions and asking for help

Young men find it difficult to ask for help and when they are struggling with their mental health, they are more likely to be identified as being ‘naughty’ rather than requiring support. Natasha advocates encouraging boys to talk about their emotions and needs from a young age. We regularly promote this at Aldwickbury through form periods and PSHCEE lessons.

As a society, we need to change our perception of ‘strength’ from someone that carries on regardless of how they are feeling, to being someone who is able to ask for help; able to discuss their vulnerabilities. A great British ‘quality’ is seen as stoicism and carrying on regardless of adversity. This perception needs to change, and we should be prepared to talk about what is bothering us. This, of course, also requires someone to listen to us without judgment. The clip ‘The Stand Up Kid’ Time to change is a powerful reminder of why talking is so important. 

Healthy body, healthy mind

Natasha advocates looking after your mental health just as you would your physical health, something we do with the boys by talking to them about ‘The Five Ways to Well-being’.  We are lucky to have extensive grounds for the boys to exercise in and to benefit mentally from being outdoors.

Aldwickbury boys


Talking about mental health

Talking to our sons about how they are, what is going on in their lives, is not always an easy task. One method advocated by Natasha and other leading experts of boys’ well-being is to talk ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’. Boys find it much easier to talk without eye contact, so a location such as the car is a good option. Boys also think and then speak, so be prepared for the long pauses as they find the emotional language to describe their feelings.

Interestingly, boys have much better access to emotional language when they are talking about other people’s feelings than their own. Researchers found that seven-year-old boys identified with three emotional states in themselves: happy, angry and hungry! They could, however, identify many more when they were talking about a close female member of the family. In short, the ‘sit down and look at me, son’ is probably not the correct approach if you want to find out how they are feeling.

Find out more

IBSC have a series of podcasts under the title of ‘exploring boys’ education’ and we have downloaded two of the podcasts on mental health to the parents’ area of the school website under the title of ‘Well-being’ resources. I have also found the IBSC series of Spotify and ‘Podcasts’ app.

Natasha’s book ‘The A-Z of being mental’ is an excellent read if you are interested in furthering your knowledge on mental health.