Taking an intersectional approach to understanding mental health and self-identity

Hannah Wilson portrait

Written by Hannah Wilson

Founder of Diverse Educators

During my time serving as a school leader, I cared deeply about our culture and ethos. We spent a lot of time reflecting on our school values, and how they shaped our inclusive behaviours. As a school we were committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, at the same time as being committed to mental health and wellbeing – both underpinned our strategic vision and our approaches for our curriculum, our staffing, our policies and our practices. This intersectional approach to who we are, how we feel about ourselves and each other, our awareness of our place in the world as global citizens, created our sense of belonging as both individuals and as a community.    

I now work independently – I am the Founder of Diverse Educators and I consult, coach and train with these two specialisms in mind. When I am commissioned to do a piece of work with a school, a trust, an educational organisation or training provider for one of these areas, I interweave the other focus back in as I find it hard to speak about one without reflecting on the other. For me this intersect is really important as we often consider mental ill health in isolation from one’s identity, and we need to remember that individuals with a protected characteristic are more vulnerable to experiencing mental health issues, as a result of how authentic and accepted they feel.  

Various factors make up a person’s actual identity, including a sense of continuity, a sense of uniqueness from others, and a sense of affiliation based on their membership in various groups like family, ethnicity, and occupation. When we have a positive view of our identity within a group, we are more likely to relate well to other others in that group and feel positive emotions about ourselves. This social identity fulfils the psychological need for esteem from others.  

Struggling with various parts of our identity is also natural and normal. It takes time to develop an identity or sense of self and the traits we desire to nurture in ourselves may be challenging. Not having a strong sense of self or struggling with identity issues can lead to anxiety and insecurity. Our sense of self comes from our self-esteem, something I worked on with many of my students over the 19 years I spent teaching and leading in schools. The value we place on ourselves creates a positive self-image which in turn creates our sense of self-worth. When we feel loved by others and by ourselves, we also feel trusted and accepted which boosts our self-esteem. A strong self-identity increases our self-confidence and enables us to assert ourselves and exercise good boundaries with our family, friends, and partner. 

Mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people which can include depression, anxiety and conduct disorders, often as a direct response to what is happening in their lives. But what does the data tell us about children and young people and their race, their gender and their sexual orientation and the intersect with their mental health?

A significant risk factor for a mental health problem manifesting is the experience of race, religion or sexuality. Anyone experiencing a mental health problem should get both support and respect. However, for many people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities this is still not the case. The reasons for this are complex but include systemic racism and discrimination as well as social and economic inequalities and mental health stigma. People from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities living in the UK are more likely to: be diagnosed with mental health problems; be diagnosed and admitted to hospital; experience a poor outcome from treatment. The disproportionate impact of coronavirus on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities has further highlighted the inequalities in the system and has made many people’s mental health worse at an already difficult time. Furthermore, research has found that children of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority heritage are suffering disproportionate damage to their mental health, as a result of the pandemic than their white peers. There has been a large rise in anxiety, stress and self-harm in non-white under 18s. 

Some questions to consider as a school regarding the intersect between race and mental health:

  • How engaged are children and young people from black and minority ethnic communities in your mental health and wellbeing activities?
  • What are the barriers which put young people from black and minority ethnic groups off from accessing mental health services in your context?
  • How culturally sensitive are your mental health processes and services in being appropriate and acceptable to children and young people from diverse families?

Returning to the risk factors, we also need to consider the layers to our identity which are not always visible nor known. Young people establishing their self-identity do not always feel the psychological safety at home and at school to be out but one in every 25 Britons aged 16–24 years old identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Cross-sectional studies consistently report that sexual-minority young people have poorer mental health profiles than their heterosexual peers, including higher prevalence of self-harm and suicide attempts. The pandemic has exacerbated many existing dangers, and introduced a few new ones, in particular, social isolation may have been especially challenging for LGBTQ youth. They may have been quarantining with rejecting family-members and have lost contact with supportive social networks. The nature of quarantining means that these problems may have been invisible to the school. Even before COVID-19, LGBTQ youth were at higher risk for depression, suicidality, and tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use than their heterosexual peers. Moreover, this increased risk stems from increased rates of rejection, discrimination, and victimisation. During the pandemic, risk was further compounded by loss of relationships in school, clubs, or other community venues where LGBTQ youth find support and affirmation. 

Some questions to consider as a school regarding the intersect between sexual orientation and mental health:

  • How engaged are children and young people from the LGBTQIA+ community in your mental health and wellbeing activities?
  • What are the barriers which put young people from the LGBTQIA+ community off from accessing mental health services in your context?
  • How have you made efforts to address gender and sexuality-based inequities so that they might be appropriate and acceptable for children and young people who identify as being LGBTQIA+?

As our schools fully re-open and our support systems are mobilised once again, we need to consider how we can support our marginalised youth groups to rebuild their sense of belonging. Some ways we can do this:

  • Recognising that representation matters and that we need to be intentional about the make up of our teams so that there is increased visibility of diverse role models in our schools. 
  • Reviewing school policies and practices for how inclusive they are in meeting the needs of all our children and young people so that they do not harm nor further alienate individuals with diverse lived experiences.  
  • Creating safe spaces for young people to explore their self-identity and to surface their lived experiences to be supported and signposted to appropriate interventions. 
  • Developing resources and peer advocacy programmes that will empower young people to nurture their own resilience whilst at the same time engage them in supporting others. 

Which is why Diverse Educators are collaborating with Worth-It CIC on their Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme as we believe that by nurturing peer to peer relationships that we can build trust and increase feelings of belonging and connection for individual young people. The programme coaches them to develop the internal resources and strategies to learn how to develop positive relationships and positive support networks. Come and join us for our free webinars on April 27th to find out more.  

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Enough is Enough: Tackling Sexism and Sexual Harassment in Schools

Kate Hollinshead portrait

Written by Kate Hollinshead

Head of Operations, EqualiTeach

The last few weeks have seen an outpouring of grief, fear, concern and anger after the details of the murder of Sarah Everard have emerged. Feelings have run high in the political sphere, on social media and in schools, with more and more women contributing their experiences of sexism, sexual harassment and violence to the wider call for action against these pernicious and pervasive acts. 

In the wake of the Sarah Everard case, the National Education Union have once again called on the government to implement a strategy to tackle sexism in schools, expressing their disappointment at the Department for Education’s action when the NEU’s report into these behaviours was first published in 2017. The report, written in collaboration with UK Feminista, found that almost a quarter of female students at mixed-sex schools had been subjected to unwanted physical touching at school and almost a third of teachers witness sexual harassment in school on at least a weekly basis. The website, Everyone’s Invited, was set up by Soma Sara after her post sharing her experiences of sexual abuse on Instagram caused a huge number of responses from others highlighting similar experiences. In the past few weeks, this website has been inundated with thousands of allegations about sexual harassment at British schools and universities. 

At EqualiTeach, we have seen an increase in calls from teachers who are dealing with these conversations in schools, wondering what to say in response and what resources exist to combat sexism and sexual harassment in their classroom. There have been incidents where girls have been upset and angry and boys have been dismissive of the severity of the situation, suggesting that girls are ‘over-reacting’ or that it’s ‘not all men.’ One school has approached us to share that girls have been expressing their upset at the historic behaviour of some of the boys in their class. In another, a year 6 boy has been internally excluded for making comments about rape. Many of the conversations and incidents here are an extension of those happening on social media or in the press, highlighting that young people are consuming news and need help in dissecting the discussions effectively in a safe and open environment. 

The suggestion that the incidents women are sharing online are overreactions or the dismissal that sexism and sexual harassment isn’t as big an issue as women think comes from a place of privilege; of a life lead without constant fear of abuse in public spaces or of a lack of understanding that incidents that appear ‘small’ or ‘low level’ are often so regular that they build up into a picture of continual harassment for a woman from a very young age. Someone might only witness sexism or sexual harassment of a woman a couple of times in their life, but the same woman may have many experiences of such behaviour, just not within the same line of sight. What is often missing in the response about women ‘overreacting’ is an understanding of how seemingly low-level incidents feed into a societal acceptance of sexist behaviours and sexual harassment, which, left unchecked, can escalate into the levels of violence against women and girls we experience in the UK. According to a 2021 survey from UN Women UK, 97% of women aged between 18 and 24 said that they had been sexually harassed and 80% of all women of all ages said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.

Such a normalisation of sexism and sexual harassment can disguise the true prevalence of behaviours. Sometimes, experiences may simply go unnoticed by targets as behaviours can be so normalised or the expectation that someone will take a complaint seriously is so low. A colleague of mine has spoken about being inappropriately touched throughout her school life, but only realised that this wasn’t acceptable when she was in her mid-twenties. Speaking about these issues can often educate those experiencing the behaviour that the behaviour isn’t something they should have to tolerate. Those young people in schools who are now speaking up about historic incidents of sexism or sexual harassment perhaps didn’t realise that this was unacceptable behaviour at the time or didn’t see the point in speaking up about it. Either way, these incidents should be dealt with seriously and robustly now. They should be investigated, and education and punitive measures should be administered accordingly. It is important for the school to adopt a robust and consistent approach to challenging sexism and sexual harassment in the same way it would approach challenging any other prejudice or misbehaviour.

Whole school education on sexism and sexual harassment is vital to prevent incidents occurring again. This should be comprehensive and woven not just into the PSHE and citizenship curriculum for each year group, but opportunities should be taken throughout the curriculum; in English, RE, History and beyond to highlight and interrogate stereotypes, sexism and sexual harassment within the taught content. Stand-alone assemblies will not do. Education should focus on what sexism is, how it manifests and what reporting procedures are in place at the school for pupils. It should focus on understanding boundaries between people, consent and how to hold others’ behaviour to account if someone witnesses something unacceptable. It should focus on stamping out sexist jokes or ‘banter’, abolishing name calling and the different expectations between girls and boys with regards to sexual behaviour, and showcasing how to be an ally to women in the fight against these behaviours. 

Being an ally is about listening to women’s experiences. All too often the response to women speaking up about such behaviours is that ‘not all men are like that.’ I understand that many men will want to distance themselves from sexist behaviours and sexual harassment, that in itself is a good thing to want to do. However, this is a defensive response which can prevent people from listening. It dismisses women’s reality. Women are aware that not all men are like that but articulating that does nothing to help address the men that are like that.  It allows the conversation to be focused only on the ‘few monsters’ out there, those who have committed terrible crimes, without highlighting how smaller acts by lots of men can contribute to women’s unsafety. As Jameela Jamil put it in a recent Twitter thread:

“Do all men work to make sure their fellow men do not harm women? Do they interrupt troubling language and behaviour in others? Do they have conversations about women’s safety/consent with their sons? Are all men interested in our safety? You don’t get to exclude yourself from the wrong side unless you’re actively fighting on the right side.”

But this shouldn’t be a blame game. Men are a product of societal norms and values, just as women are. The focus needs to be on re-educating people away from sexism and sexual harassment and reforming schemes of work in schools to begin discussions from an early age. Not doing so does a disservice to men, women, everyone. Instead, we want to create a society where everyone feels safe, valued and able to succeed. 

The following resources may be useful to beginning these conversations with young people:

EqualiTeach Outside the Box Guide for Educators: Promoting Gender Equality and Tackling Sexism and Sexual Harassment in Schools: https://equaliteach.co.uk/for-schools/classroom-resources/outside-the-box/

EqualiTeach Outside the Box Workshops for KS2-5: https://equaliteach.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/Outside-the-Box.pdf

UK Feminista How to Take a Whole School Approach to Tackling Sexism in Schools https://ukfeminista.org.uk/resources/wsa/

Further Reading

Department for Education (DfE) (2018) Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges: advice for governing bodies, proprietors, headteachers, principals, senior leadership teams and designated safeguarding leads https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/719902/Sexual_violence_and_sexual_harassment_between_children_in_schools_and_colleges.pdf

End Violence Against Women https://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/about/data-on-violence-against-women-and-girls/#:~:text=%20Data%20on%20violence%20against%20women%20and%20girls,and%20internal%20child%20trafficking.%20The%20vast…%20More%20

Gender Matters. Toward’s Women’s Equality in Scotland https://gendermatters.engender.org.uk/content/education-training/

Girl Guiding (2013) Girls’ Attitudes Survey https://www.girlguiding.org.uk/globalassets/docs-and-resources/research-and-campaigns/girls-attitudes-survey-2013.pdf

Murray, J (2021) The Guardian. Government still has no strategy for tackling sexism in schools, say teachers. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/mar/20/government-still-has-no-strategy-for-tackling-sexism-in-schools-say-teachers

NEU and UK Feminista (2017) ‘It’s Just Everywhere! Sexism in Schools’ https://neu.org.uk/advice/its-just-everywhere-sexism-schools

UN Women UK and YouGov (2021) Prevalence and reporting of sexual harassment in UK public spaces https://www.unwomenuk.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/APPG-UN-Women-Sexual-Harassment-Report_Updated.pdf

Women and Equalities Committee Report (2016) Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmwomeq/91/91.pdf

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Voice Led Early Intervention for Student Wellbeing and Belonging

Liz Robson-Kelly portrait

Written by Liz Robson-Kelly

Educator, Positive and Organisational Psychologist, leading expert on Positive Education in the UK.

My research and extensive work for the last 10 years has focused on increasing capacity to prevent young people develop long lasting mental health problems. Listening to and understanding young people themselves, what they want, and need is the key to providing effective early intervention and mental health problem prevention. 

The whole ethos of Worth-it Positive Education CIC as an organisation has been founded on co-produced insights and ideas from the young people we work with and support. This passion for empowering young people to have a voice has led me to publish grounded theory research on how coaching and positive psychology approaches can help young people prevent the onset of common mental health problems. Through this research and our work with young people, time and time again they have said that being sharing their stresses and concerns with another young person ‘like them’ and who understands them, and their situation is essential to the way they want to access support.  That knowing that there is another young person who can share their ‘experience’ and ‘helpful information’, supports them to improve their mental health and wellbeing.

Looking beyond the experiences of individual young people and focusing on the wider school environment, school connectedness, belonging and positive peer relationships have also been demonstrated to be essential for the prevention of mental health problems in young people. Students are more likely to engage in healthy behaviours and succeed academically when they feel connected to a school and have positive peer relationships.  Experiencing positive peer relationships and a sense of belonging at school makes a major contribution to young people’s ability to increase their own wellbeing resources. This then enables them to deal with challenging situations, stress, or pressure and reduce the onset of mental health problems. Empowering students to lead projects and interventions that support the development of belonging and positive relationships fosters wellbeing and is integral to supporting a whole school approach to mental health.

To prevent mental health problems, it is essential we support young people to develop and use their own personal resources for wellbeing. This includes enabling them to identify and access support networks provided by peers or the school environment. This ability to nurture wellbeing resources and increase access support networks is something that can be shared peer to peer.  Young people are often more likely to listen to a peer about what helps them increase their own wellbeing than any well-meaning adult.

Combining the importance of offering early prevention and supporting young people develop and share resources for wellbeing, led us to develop our Wellbeing Ambassadors programme. This programme is based on peer-to-peer coaching and positive psychology research. Through testing our approach, gaining feedback from young people, schools and organisations including, CAMHS and local authorities. We designed and shaped an intervention that empowers young people develop their own internal resources for wellbeing and then share them with peers and lead initiatives that support wellbeing to be developed across the school environment. The Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme builds and nurture on positive peer relationships that support the development of belonging and connection at school. 

The Wellbeing Ambassadors programme trains young people coaching skills and supports them to become an empowered team of peer wellbeing leaders. They then decide and implement their own wellbeing initiatives that will support their peers to feel included, develop positive relationships and strategies for wellbeing in their own schools. Nurturing peer to peer relationships builds trust and can increase feelings of belonging and connection. This can have a significant impact on supporting the school to become inclusive and built on a foundation of belonging and positive relationships that promote and protect wellbeing. 

Young people more than anything need to belong and need strategies to learn how to develop positive relationships, and into positive support networks is more important now than ever. Not only to reduce the negative impact to mental health caused by the lockdowns but to support all young people enjoy and flourish at school.

Find out more

We are pleased to be working collaboratively with Hannah Wilson and Diverse Educators who is championing and sharing her passion for supporting pupil belonging, inclusion and wellbeing.  We have come together to share our insights into our Why Have Student Wellbeing Ambassadors? – Webinar. 

To find out more about how a Wellbeing Ambassador Programme, can help you support student mental health and wellbeing join our Live 1 hour Webinar on the 27th April 2021 at 11am or 4pm.

Next Steps 

To find out more and book your place on the ‘Why Have Student Wellbeing Ambassadors’- Webinar follow this link


For more about my work at Worth-it click here.

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