In the early 1990s, I worked as a counsellor with teenagers as part of a youth agency. These young people were already very angry, and in some cases offending. Many were victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse in childhood. I also worked as a student counsellor at London University with bright academic students who had all sorts of issues - suicidal tendencies, eating disorders and addictions to name but a few.
It became increasingly obvious to me that many of their responses to the world had something to do with their childhood. If only they had been able to talk about their fears sooner I thought. If only their parents had been supported and understood themselves. So all this led to me to establish Place2Be as an independent charity in 1994.
Of course there have been challenges along the way over the last two decades, but witnessing the impact of what we do on children and families remains my biggest inspiration. Two particular stories stick out in my mind...
The first took place in one of the very first schools to start working with Place2Be. I visited the school and spoke to the Head Teacher, who told me that one of her pupils had been through such a severe trauma that she had become an elective mute. After a year's one-to-one counselling with Place2Be, she was able to stand up in a school assembly and talk proudly in front of her fellow pupils and staff. This was one of the first concrete pieces of evidence of the incredible, life-changing difference that providing easily-accessible support at an early stage can make. That still brings a lump to my throat.
Another story comes years later, when a mother and father stood up at another school visit I attended in the north of England. The father stood tall and silent, while the mother was in tears. She told us that she dreaded speaking out in front of a full room and really didn't want to do it at all, but she felt she must because it was so important that we hear her story. A couple of years earlier, her husband had been violently attacked and mugged, and had subsequently lost the ability to speak. He'd previously had an incredibly close relationship with his three children, and they struggled to cope with the traumatic change. Then a few months later, their 16-year-old son tragically took his own life.
After this unimaginably distressing experience, their eight-year-old younger son began refusing to attend school. He struggled with nightmares and bed-wetting, and would not leave his mother's side. No matter what help they tried, nothing seemed to work. At around the same time, his school started working with Place2Be, and they suggested that he attend one-to-one counselling. His parents, at their wits end as nothing had worked, thought what have we got to lose? They made a special effort to ensure that he got to his Place2Be appointments in school and over time, going in became easier. Eventually he was able to become a fully-fledged member of the school community. At the end of her story the mum explained why she felt she must speak out: "getting that support not only changed my son's life, it gave me my family back".
Why does all this matter?
We know that the need is great. During their first eleven years, one in five children will experience a mental health difficulty. Children who are distracted and unable to deal with their worries will not be able to engage with their learning and reach their full potential. We all need good mental health to engage positively with our lives, have a sense of hope and optimism and develop the resilience we need to cope with life's problems. These are vital life skills to help us through childhood and into adulthood and underpin successful relationships, engagement with learning and ultimately help us develop into thriving, flourishing adults who can face the world with a sense of confidence and self-belief.
We also know from our own research in partnership with the NAHT that two thirds of primary schools in England have no access to a school-based counsellor. According to the latest data, there are over 24,300 schools in the UK. This year, Place2Be is providing mental health services for pupils, parents and teachers in 282 primary and secondary schools, and supporting staff through training, consultation and development in 93 schools. We know it works, but this is what we might call the tip of the iceberg.
My hope for the future is that all schools will have the resources to provide excellent mental health support for all their pupils, that all teachers will be empowered by training to understand and support children's mental health, and that every child will have the opportunity to grow up with prospects not problems.
Dame Benny Refson is president of Place2Be
Place2Be's Wellbeing in Schools Awards, held on Tuesday 22 November, celebrate and recognise ambassadors of positive mental health and highlight the unique contribution that school communities make to the wellbeing of local communities. For more information, visit Place2Be's site