When I was 17 years old doing my A-levels I worked with an after school play scheme that helped primary school children with their self-esteem, achievement and feelings through physical play and exercise. It not only had a huge impact on the kid’s lives but my own too. At the time I wasn’t a very happy teenager and seeing the way the scheme uplifted young children gave me a bit of comfort that I myself was worthwhile.
I already knew the impact physical activity could have on the way a child feels hence why I took my play scheme qualification and volunteered. I walked miles with my Grandad from the age of 4, did aerobics with my mum from the age of 5 and I found running when I was 11 year old, it helped me figure out who I was, cope with my surroundings and the ups and downs of growing up, it gave me a sense of self-worth and most importantly a positive outlet for a million emotions that were so powerful that I didn’t know how to express or what to do with.
Last year I went into a women’s refuge as you may have seen on This Morning and spent time not only with the women but their kids. There was one girl who really stood out to me, maybe because I recognised my young self in her. I wanted to see if I could try and make a bit of difference to how she was feeling. I couldn’t do much about her situation but I absolutely could try and empower her and help her deal with how she was feeling. I took her for a run and showed her some exercises to do when she was feeling certain ways like angry and anxious. You should have seen the difference on her face, her eyes were lit up and instead of her normal shrunken posture she was standing tall and proud. She was only seven.
I am so pleased that the stigma of mental health and the way we treat it, is finally being talked about. I know too well myself how important this is and having most recently being treated for PTSD. However services as we can all see are stretched and I have been informed by the horses’ mouth (I sit on a Ministry of Justice panel) that this will not change in the short term as physical health takes a priority in spending.
The more kids understand themselves the more they can empathise with others
So we really need to look at early intervention of emotional literacy if we want to leave a positive legacy for our future generations in preventing mental health issues. The benefits not only to the individuals but the whole of society are more than huge.
Given that 70% of mental health problems in adults are developed from childhood and adolescent it makes a big load of sense to me.
It is proven that primary school age is the critical period for mental health and social function. There is a huge emphasis on a child’s academic development but if a child is lacking in emotional development and wellbeing it will become a barrier to learning and therefore all other areas of development too.
For example if a child is feeling anxious, angry, stressed the part of the brain for ‘survival instincts’ will be used rather than the part of the brain for thoughts and processing which is needed for learning. It is so hard for us to change children’s circumstances and surroundings but we absolutely can empower a child. The more kids understand themselves the more they can empathise not only with themselves but others which is a key part of forming healthy relationships.
All of this is essential for their later life.
So who knew that an enforced period of hospital recovery (my illness last year and brush with death is another story for another time!) would help me come up with an app - Powerme. I want Powerme to empower kids to use their bodies to help them feel better and cope.
It helps kids identify with their emotions and gives them a short 30-second video coping mechanism using either physical activity, mediation, poses and imagery stories specific to how they are feeling and where they are. The nervous system is in charge of sending messages to and from our brain from all parts of our body. So by doing physical things it can change the way the mind works, release feelings and therefore change how you are feeling. It promotes positive behaviours and feelings. This for example is why exercise can change your mood. They also have so many other benefits improving motor control, concentration, cognitive function, developmental skills and stronger muscles and bones. I also wanted to connect the parents, guardians and family members, so each week they get an ‘emotions report’ from Powerme simply informing them of the feelings the child is selecting. The information can then help the adult connect easier to the child or recognise certain patterns that might be linked to exterior events.
Powerme is just a tiny part of the puzzle, a small tool but it can help children cope and learn how to self-regulate and take control. I’m currently developing its next phase by adding a feature where kids can express how they feel and feel good about it! Teaching that all emotions are good emotions, perfectly normal and expressing them is a positive act.
As adults we know how overwhelming our emotions can be and how hard it is to cope, how on earth do we expect kids to when we don’t even teach them how?
Excitingly I am also working on a specific app for all primary schools using the same concept having spoken with various head teachers who have all said their biggest worry is the emotional literacy of children. Any companies that want to help pretty please get in touch!
Child suicide rates are rising with more than four suicides a week which is just heartbreaking and so are mental health problems in adults which is costing us around £77billion per year (1.) in England alone, so investing in prevention and early intervention saves most importantly lives but also money.
Powerme is completely free to download on both apple and android phones.
- The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health. (2003) Economic and Social Costs of Mental Illness in England London: The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health