We all have a brain, we all have mental health
By Rev’d Paul Gooding, Head of Wellbeing and Assistant Chaplain

“We all have a brain, we all have mental health“. I was drawn to this insightful comment from Natasha Devon MBE, a mental health champion. It normalises the reality that we all have mental fitness, and we should therefore cherish our mental health, in the same way that we encourage students to look after their physical health through the Other Half.

One tool that we are teaching the students is to be aware of, and proactively manage, their own “Stress Buckets”. Doing this helps to manage and take charge of our mental health. This is also a tool that we teach staff on the Youth Mental Health First Aid training course as well. Picture this; we all have a stress bucket, some are big, some are small, depending on our own personal circumstances. Stress or ‘water’ goes into the bucket; things like life events that are often beyond our control. Some are small things, like a combination of academic deadlines colliding with other pressing deadlines, others are more significant and beyond our control, like a family bereavement. This stress or ‘water’ fills up the bucket until it overflows, a situation called “snapping”; something we want to avoid. In order to avoid this, there is a tap on the side of the bucket – a healthy, “positive coping strategy” to help let the stress or ‘water’ out of the side of the bucket. These positive strategies will range from person to person. If you ask me what my ‘tap’ is – it would be my love of cycling. Cycling helps alleviate my stress and allows me to reset an overloaded, tired or strained brain. Another person might say gardening, others: composing music, running, walking the dog, getting lost in a novel, whatever works (that is legal!) for you to let the ‘water’ out. We then teach the students that sometimes the ‘tap’ can get blocked with “negative coping strategies”. These activities are often unhelpful ways of coping and stop the ‘water’ from getting out, so it overflows. Turning to drugs and substances or falling into game addiction might be an example where an unhelpful or negative coping strategy has emerged that blocks the ‘tap’ so the ‘water’ cannot flow out of the side.

We then seek to encourage students to understand what is going into their bucket right now – to write it down and be self-aware. Some things they can control. It might be that they can say “no” to something, but being aware of what goes in can be very helpful. We are then encouraging students to fine-tune their positive wellbeing strategies to let the water out. It is great to see the Other Half play such a key role in this regard. I’ve been at Abingdon since 2006 and I never tire of overhearing how much utter joy students take in a corner of the Other Half curriculum that they take great delight in: shooting, the Amey Theatre tech crew, entomology club, Bridge club, the CCF, DofE expeditions, sailing at Farmoor, basketball and so the list goes on.

We hope that students will maintain these positive habits for a lifetime and it is always great to meet OAs who are still following their passions years down the line. It’s great to be connected with OAs on Strava and it always excites me to see some hitting segment leaderboards with their efforts in swimming, running, cycling, or, in some cases, paddleboarding and snow-shoeing (and yes, there is a category for that)!

Taking care of our brains, and cherishing our mental health is a key life skill. If we can encourage students to proactively manage it now, whilst in school, I believe it will stand them in good stead for the future and be a key tool in their resilience rucksack for life.

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