Wellness centre bids to boost mental health

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A pioneering wellness centre focusing on mental wellbeing in young people has been unveiled at Harrogate Ladies’ College.

The facility, thought to be one of the first of its kind in the country, offers a dedicated space to focus on students’ mental and physical wellbeing.

Targeted activities include mindfulness training, meditation, yoga, massage and reflexology, stress prevention and management and nutritional advice for its students.

The school is also keen that its benefits extend to staff members and the local community who can take part in talks promoting wellness, parent and baby activities and first aid and medical support.

The ambitious project is the result of a vision by college Principal Sylvia Brett, who said: “Children do struggle with life. The wellness centre is here because we want to help our children to cope.

“The pressures of university entrance, debt and so forth are always going to be there but we want to help our pupils to have strategies in place and have enough of a sense of who they are to make the right choices.

“It is so important that we can support each other in a way which is honest and real and with integrity. We feel very passionate about our aims that we want our children to be able to be honest about who they are.

“It’s about spreading that message that wellness is a good thing and an important thing and it’s not a gimmick.”

She added: “Our commitment to wellness and our investment in a new centre reflects our aim to provide opportunities for the whole school community to develop physical, mental and social wellbeing.

“We are developing our Wellness Strategy in consultation with parents, staff and pupils and this will develop as the centre evolves and demands of the world change.”

The centre was officially opened with a launch day involving talks from visiting speakers on topics including the importance of sleep, exam anxiety and LGBT-related issues, as well as activities including mindfulness yoga, mindfulness sewing and ‘dough dancing’, which improves children’s dexterity.

Laura Brookes, the college’s Assistant Director of Wellness, Head of PSHE and also the head of one of the boarding houses at the school, said the day had been an emotional culmination of months of effort.

“To walk around and see all of that and to know this will help them in the future was really quite emotional.

“That same afternoon a girl approached me and said, ‘thank you so much for putting that together because it has given me the confidence to go to my friends and tell them I’m bisexual.’ In that sense it was showing instant results.”

Along with activities and talks, the Wellness Centre provides access to counselling and also serves as a health centre complete with a clinic staffed by full-time nurses, examination room, three bedrooms and a consulting room.

For Year 13 student Mollie Wilson, who has been appointed as Harrogate Ladies’ College’s first Wellbeing Prefect, the centre is a welcome addition for people who suffer from anxiety, as she knows only too well.

Mollie, who is now studying A-levels in Arts, Maths and Photography, struggled for several years, suffering from anxiety and panic attacks whilst at a previous school.

“You get so trapped in your head,” said the 17-year-old. “The first time I was in Year 8. I was on a school trip and I got really bad heat stroke, I wasn’t with my family and that really frightened me. I couldn’t breathe, and then I couldn’t see. I passed out, I was hyperventilating and I was really really sick. That was my first ever panic attack. That was the first time I went to the doctors, and they said, ‘you’re fine, there’s nothing wrong with you’.”

Since starting at the school she has received counselling and support through its ongoing Wellness Strategy and has played a key role in developing the Wellness Centre, which she hopes will provide support to other girls suffering from similar issues.

“I’m so proud of becoming the first Wellness Prefect. It’s making what I’ve been through something I’m happy to talk about because I knew it will help other people speak out and get help.”

As well as subsidised yoga and pilates sessions for staff, the centre is also benefiting the wider community with baby yoga and NCT (National Childbirth Trust) groups and hosting meeting of The Lighthouse, a local support group for carers of people with mental health problems.

Alongside mental health, the centre also aims to help pupils with financial, social, spiritual, occupational, intellectual and environmental wellness and the Wellness Team works with the PE, Food Technology and Business departments to help the girls gain ‘real world experience’.

Richard Farnan, Director of Wellness, said: “The wellness centre is for everybody. It shouldn’t just be a first aid measure for people who are suffering from problems with mental health.”

He said the team is equipped to deal with issues as they arise, but also preventative measures.

“We need to make sure that young people have their own coping strategies they can use before problems escalate, whether they’re practising yoga or mindfulness or simple things like teaching them about exam anxiety so that they can go and practice their cognitive strategies before exam anxiety actually comes around.

“The idea behind the centre is that we’re trying to be as preventative as possible rather than just fighting fires.”

For Sylvia Brett, the Wellness Centre is part of an ongoing drive to help young people deal with the stresses they are likely to face throughout their lives.

“The problem with education is it becomes a political football which changes every five years and for children you need a consistent long-reaching plan which is going to place wellbeing and wellness at the heart of the next ten, fifty or one hundred years of policy,” she added.

“But we are already seeing the outcomes of this not happening, like the rise in suicide rates and self-harming amongst children and young people.

“My personal theory is that it is possibly connected to children pushed through an education system that purely focuses on exam results and doesn’t put enough focus on developing skills for actually living.”

The Principal added: “I would love us to be a hub for experts locally, even regionally, even nationally,” she said.

“I would love the centre to stand for the importance of wellbeing and wellness for children, and young people particularly.

“People often say ‘it takes a village to bring up a child’ and I think it’s that sense of working together to improve all round wellness that will move us into a hopefully better future.”