school counselling deputy first minister John Swinney

In the latest of our Q&A sessions we took some time out to speak to Jen Graham, The Spark’s Education Services Director about school based counselling.

Jen heads up our team of children and young people (CYP) counsellors and trainers. Across Scotland they are supporting over 5,000 pupils, their teachers and families this academic year.

Find out why schools are turning to The Spark for support, the issues our counsellors help children with and the real benefits of school based counselling.

Q. Jen, why are many schools in Scotland choosing to host their own school based counsellors?

“Schools recognise that when pupils are struggling with their emotional and mental wellbeing, they’re not in the best place to learn.

Specialist services such as ours give pupils a confidential space to explore their worries and concerns with a trusted professional.”

Kids learning

“Head Teachers and class teachers recognise the importance of health and wellbeing for pupils. It makes a fundamental contribution to help raising attainment in the class room.”

Q. Are the issues pupils are struggling with in school common across the board?

“The range of issues pupils are referred with are wide ranging and often complex.

Our CYP counsellors can be handling attachment issues, anger and aggression, parental separation, loss, trauma and abuse. Unfortunately we often work with pupils who have had multiple Adverse Childhood Experience’s (ACEs).”

Q. There has been a lot of mention in the media recently about ‘early intervention’ approaches. Is that something The Spark looks to achieve?

“Absolutely. That always has been and continues to be one of our founding principles.

In an ideal world our therapeutic services would be available to pupils as soon as they need support. Not just when an issue has become something more serious. This is why we operate school based counselling from Primary 1 right up to S6 in Scottish schools.

It is of course not always possible to take this approach. But with the creation of the Scottish Government’s Pupil Equity Funding (PEF), more schools have been able to take an early intervention approach.”

Q. You mentioned PEF funding as a way schools have been able to improve mental health. How much of a positive impact has PEF funding had?

“The Spark has worked in schools for many years but the landscape has changed massively in the last 18 months.

In the past, schools didn’t have the budget to address the needs they could see were there. School based counselling was therefore largely reliant on grant funding.  But all that’s changed with PEF.”

school counselling deputy first minister John Swinney
Members of The Spark’s CYP team discuss the impact of school based counselling with Deputy First Minister, John Swinney MSP.

“We can now engage with Head Teachers and local authorities directly when the emotional and mental wellbeing of pupils is considered a priority. With over a decade of experience in this area we have refined our model to one that schools know is effective.

Not all schools need to provide additional support for the emotional and mental wellbeing of their pupils. For those that do, The Spark has a bank of highly experienced, fully-qualified CYP counsellors ready to go into schools.”

Q. How do The Spark’s CYP counsellors integrate into a new school? Does it take long for them to gain the trust of pupils and teachers?

“By working in schools every week, our CYP counsellors become part of the school team. They operate in partnership with teachers and support staff to get a real understanding of the school and its pupils.

Sometimes that’s just one day per week but increasingly there’s a greater need. Many schools have increased their services to 3 or 4 days per week, every week of the academic year.

When it comes to pupils, our aim is to normalise speaking to a counsellor about your emotions and wellbeing. By getting closely involved in pupil assemblies, parents presentations and teachers meetings, we do whatever is needed to show the whole school community that we’re there to support them.”

Q. What outcomes are schools seeing as a result of school based counselling?

“The benefits to schools and individual children and young people vary as much as the difficulties they come with.

At times the changes are small improvements in self-esteem or confidence. In other cases there we will see a significant impact upon attendance/timekeeping and behaviour. Ongoing evaluations and assessments mean we can continuously monitor the progress made by pupils.”

relationship education evaluation
Related article: Evaluation of school based counselling for Clackmannanshire Council

“Feedback from parents is an important aspect of our work. Youth counselling is at its most effective when we are able to work collaboratively with families and teaching staff. In fact we’re told of happier, more communicative children at home by parents regularly.

This positive feedback often spreads to surrounding schools who then decide to work with us. As a charity this is a real positive as it helps us realise our ambition of helping as many children and young people as we can in Scotland.”

In part 2 of our interview we talk about how the The Spark is equipping teachers to improve the emotional and mental wellbeing of pupils, and why the organisation only uses fully-qualified, experienced counsellors to deliver school based counselling.

Take a look at our Children and Young People content for more information about school based counselling, education programmes and training/support for teachers.


Data released last month again highlighted the scale of the challenge Scotland faces as it seeks to improve youth mental health.

Waiting times for young people to be assessed by their local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) grabbed the headlines once more.

In some regions over 80% of referrals are seen within the Government’s stated 18 week limit for referrals. However in many it is as low as just 20%.

CAMHS youth mental health

The data also highlighted the number of ‘rejections’ within each NHS board area. These are the children and young people deemed unsuitable for support through the current system.

CAMHS services are not the problem

The current model of treatment was intended to route all forms of mental health issue – low and high tariff cases – to CAMHS. However in reality CAMHS is now restricted – by various factors – to helping the most vulnerable young people.

Even the terminology – rejections – implies CAMHS services are not interested in helping. The truth is they simply cannot.

And this rather than the headline grabbing statistics on waiting times and rejection rates is where solutions to the problem lie.

What needs to change?

As Scotland’s largest provider of school-based counselling services, The Spark is well placed to understand the realities of the current youth mental health system.

CAMHS self-harm unhappy teenager

The present model – which allows personal issues to escalate into full-blown mental health problems before children are seen by a professional – needs to be turned on its head.

50% of all diagnosable mental health issues in children begin before they reach the age of 14. Scotland therefore needs to break new ground by focusing on prevention first and foremost.

Making early-intervention a priority

Taking an early intervention approach – as The Spark does with our school-based counselling and education programmes – offers a more efficient and effective solution. By focusing on preventing minor issues from becoming major problems we can achieve a step-change in how we tackle youth mental health.

Expanding the current model of youth mental health care

The current model of care is based on a restrictive set of options for young people struggling with mental health issues. Through the NHS model – irrespective of severity – a young person attends their GP and if they cannot resolve the issue the final step is a CAMHS referral.

This ignores the highly skilled youth mental health practitioners’ operating out with NHS infrastructure. Directing young people to third sector providers like The Spark could provide a more inclusive approach.

For those who do not meet criteria for CAMHS support, third sector providers could offer an effective alternative. Thus reducing pressure on CAMHS services and cutting waiting times/rejection rates without the need for huge investment.

Utilising the third sector in support of CAMHS

To achieve this there needs to be better understanding of available services for those on the frontline. GPs, parents, carers, CAMHS themselves need to be equipped with better knowledge of the services available.

CAMHS youth mental health new direction

And more importantly they need to be given permission to signpost and recommend services that sit outside the NHS infrastructure.

Time to move on from the NHS-only model

We owe it to current and future generations of young people to get a better system in place. In order to do so we must no longer be slavish to the old ‘NHS-only’ models of provision.

Joining up services from both the public and third sectors can fill the gaps in the current model. CAMHS should still have a vital role to play but alongside additional support services.

Indeed this something specifically referred to in the Scottish Government’s own 2017-2027 mental health strategy.

Using the skills and expertise available Scotland can create a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to youth mental health.

School based counselling, education programmes and support

The Spark is Scotland’s largest supplier of school based counselling and support services.

Our specialist Children and Young People counsellors are embedded within the school community, working in partnership with teachers, support staff and families.

Find out more about our school based counselling for Primary and Secondary schools and our dedicated training for teachers.

If your child has been rejected by CAMHS, we may be able to support them with youth counselling. To find out more make an enquiry online or freephone 0808 802 0050.

conflict and the brain

Colleagues from The Spark attended the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution’s Annual Conference (SCCR) last week entitled ‘Conflict. It’s all about the brain…or is it?’

The conference focused on how the interaction between our body, feelings and mind determines how we behave.

In particular there was a focus on how this relates to the mental health and behaviour of children and young people, issues that are central to the work we do here at The Spark.

Scotland’s Mental Health strategy

The Ministerial Address was given by Maree Todd MSP, Minister for Childcare and Early Years.  The Minister covered a broad range of Scottish Government policies including the 10 Year Mental Health Strategy and Education Attainment Challenge.

conflict Scottish Government Mental Health Strategy

We have talked elsewhere about The Spark’s increasing contribution to the Scottish Government’s agenda. Our school based counselling and support services are available to over 5,000 children this academic year.

This is complemented by educational programmes building emotional resilience in children and tackling issues like cyber-bullying and violence.

The triumvirate of support is completed by our dedicated training for teachers and support staff in schools.

‘We do talk about our feelings – just about a year after we’ve had them’

A particular highlight from the conference was the presentation by James Docherty from Police Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit.

James offered up one of the most memorable quotes from the day: ‘In Scotland we do talk about our feelings – just about a year after we’ve had them.’

conflict SCCR 2018 conference images

This brought a laugh of recognition from the audience. Unsurprisingly we still have some way to go in Scotland when it comes to feelings and emotions.

The impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences

James talked about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which are a key area of focus for those working with the excluded.  Troubled family relationships lead to troubled children at home, school and in the community.

Those children with ACEs of neglect, household adversity and overt abuse have been shown to have a greatly increased likelihood of health harming behaviours in later life.

These significantly impact on the behaviours we exhibit towards others, subsequently undermining family and community cohesion and leading to a wide range of societal problems.

The Spark’s Tackling Violence programme

The Spark operates the ‘Tackling Violence’ programme in schools and evaluations regularly demonstrate the effectiveness of the course. Developing awareness of the damaging impact of violence on personal, family and community relationships is the objective of the programme.

Typically 90% or more of participating young people have a greater awareness and understanding of:

  • the impact violence can have on their community
  • the consequences of being in a gang and
  • the impact their choices have on their future.

This awareness of the impact of feelings on behaviour ties in with the main theme of the SCCR conference.

Conflict and the Emotional Homunculus

Dr Sara Watkin, SCCR Medical Advisor, introduced us to the Emotional Homunculus – the part of the brain that uses feelings and emotions to decide how we will act and react.

This included a whistle stop tour of the brain and an overview of the five primary emotional states we experience. These states along with the associated chemicals released in the body (the ‘Drugs Cabinet of your Mind’) impact upon our behaviour and responses during conflict situations:

  • Anxious and Afraid
  • Fight or Flight
  • Freeze and Shutdown
  • Rest and Digest and
  • Alert and Engaged.

In using the Emotional Homunculus model SCCR is ultimately aiming to help us cope better with conflict situations by understanding how thoughts and feelings impact upon our behaviour.

Tackling conflict through emotional resilience

The Spark has made a commitment to utilise the resources and information created by SCCR.

By sharing with our counsellors working schools we intend to help children and young people improve their understanding of how their emotions and bodies work to influence their well-being.

The Spark – counselling and relationship support for all

Through our work with individuals, couples, families, children and young people we are helping people to get the best out of their relationships.

The Spark provides a range of support services including counselling, free online resources, the free Relationship Helpline, Relationship MOT and school-based counselling.

For more information on the Emotional Homunculus and your #CranialCocktail visit the SCCR website.

youth mental health

Research published this month revealed 66% of staff in Scottish schools feel ill-equipped to help pupils with youth mental health problems. Commissioned by the Scottish Association for Mental Health, the survey highlighted the need to properly train teachers and support workers.

youth mental health

Mental Health training for teachers

Working in partnership with schools and local authorities, here at The Spark we are actively addressing that skills gap.

Through our Scottish Mental Health First Aid for Young People (SMHFA-YP) and Relationship First Aid for Teachers (RFA) courses we are equipping teachers and support staff to spot the early signs of mental distress in children.

The Spark’s training provides staff in schools with a better understanding of youth mental health issues and how to signpost families to suitable, professional support.

Many schools are now investing their Scottish Government Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) in these programmes.

Teacher training is available right now

Rolling out the SMHFA-YP and RFA courses to all schools in Scotland could bridge the current skills gap. Both programmes are proven to deliver improved outcomes for pupils, school staff and families.

youth mental health

Importantly this training is readily available to schools and local authorities right now. Meaning it can be implemented almost immediately – a significant advantage over the time-consuming and costly process of commissioning new training.

First responders

Whilst suitable training for teachers and school support staff is vital, it is not enough to simply train education professionals in mental health first aid.

The role of teachers and school support staff in the drive for better youth mental health must be very specific. Within the context of a comprehensive, nationwide strategy they must be considered as first responders.

youth mental health

Youth mental health support pathways

Training – through programmes like our Relationship First Aid for Teachers – can and should be used to develop a community of first responders within our schools.

From there suitable pathways to refer pupils and their families to professional support need to be in place.

School based counselling

It is optimal for school staff to work alongside and not in place of professional mental health experts. Teachers are best placed to pinpoint changes in behaviour that might highlight underlying issues that could benefit from counselling and specialist support.

The provision of school based counsellors allows pupils to be referred for support within their own environment. With minimal administration pupils can receive help within a matter of days.

Clearly defined pathways allows to focus on teaching and local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to concentrate on the most complex referrals.

A comprehensive approach to youth mental health

The Spark has helped schools and local authorities make a genuine positive impact on the mental health of children and young people. Our commitment to this work will see us support over 5,000 school pupils this academic year. This will be achieved through school based counselling and education programmes.

youth mental health school pupils

Rolling out a comprehensive training programme for teachers and support staff in Scotland’s schools would be a worthwhile objective. To be effective however it must be matched with a similar commitment to placing professional youth counsellors in schools.

By training teachers and support staff as first responders, providing suitable referral pathways and embedding counsellors in schools Scotland can lead the way in improving youth mental health.

School based counselling, education programmes and support

The Spark is Scotland’s largest supplier of school based counselling and support services.

Our specialist Children and Young People counsellors are embedded within the school community, working in partnership with teachers, support staff and families.

Find out more about our school based counselling for Primary and Secondary schools and our dedicated training for teachers.

Alexa Amazon Echo dot

You might have spent time over Christmas and New Year listening to children play with their family’s new ‘Alexa’. The Alexa in question – if you are not into your gadgets – is the name of the personal assistant service (and ‘wake word’) on Amazon’s range of Echo intelligent speakers.

Along with Google’s equivalent ‘Home’, intelligent speakers are set to become a permanent fixture in our homes. With basic voice commands they can complete an ever increasing range of tasks.

Alexa Amazon Echo dot

Alexa? Play ‘Let It Go’…

Watching and listening to young kids play with Alexa recently was fascinating.

At first it started with wide-eyed disbelief at being able to play ‘Let it Go’ from Disney’s Frozen by just asking. Excitement reached fever pitch as Alexa told jokes, named all the Disney princesses and offered to book tickets for Paddington 2 at the cinema.

At the time a few of the parents joked that once the kids realised Alexa could order pizza and new IPads they would be in trouble (more on that later).

Pizza ordered by Alexa
Who ordered 30 pizzas?

Gradually the kids started asking more challenging questions of Alexa. Of course, with the system connected to the constantly expanding body of knowledge that is the Internet, there was little it could not answer.

Alexa knew everything. And that concerned me.

Why would I ask mum or dad? I can ask Alexa…

Back in the dark ages before the Internet we would go to our parents or grandparents for answers.

They would impart their own knowledge or find a book in the library that could do the same. Though neither understood it at the time, this represented an important bonding experience between child and parent.

The importance of parent child bonding

Here at The Spark we talk a lot about the importance of parent and child bonding from birth.

Babies brains make connections at 1 million times per second as they learn in the first 1000 days after birth. The cuddles, face to face interaction and kisses we share with them encourage that brain development.

The importance of the invisible bond between parent and child does not however end when they, for example, can ask Alexa to read them a bedtime story.

Throughout the journey from childhood to adulthood, maintaining that bond is vital in shaping confident, resilient and happy adults.

Child reading a book not asking Alexa the answer

Parents with older children will attest to the huge challenge in keeping any opportunities to bond intact.

Education is one of the few constants in this regard and as far as The Spark is concerned, we believe these opportunities need to be protected and encouraged.

The downsides of Alexa and the Internet

There are already concerns that children are learning about relationships, sex, self-worth and self-image via the Internet and often in potentially harmful ways.

Child development specialists have, in particular, reservations about the nature of the artificial intelligence that smart speakers use to ‘learn’.

Questions posed to Alexa and Home need to be formed using limited vocabulary and required only limited language skills. Their concerns are what this could do to the development of communication skills among younger children.

Furthermore none of the relationship nuances and social skills required in human to human contact are needed when using intelligent services.

In short, the child demands and the system provides with no questions or limitations.

Is Alexa safe for children?

For parents thinking about introducing artificial intelligence systems like Alexa to their home, The Spark has prepared some advice on how to manage the process:

1 Set some ground rules

When introducing new technology to the home set rules on how kids are and are not allowed to use it. For example, explaining the difference between asking Alexa for something and how they would ask another adult or child for something.

2 Get them reading books

Try to avoid allowing kids to solely learn via the Internet. Get back to reading encyclopaedias and atlases, and taking the occasional trip to your local library.

3 Use your own knowledge

Explain and educate them with the knowledge you have. Enjoy the opportunity to spend time and bond with them.

4 Learn together on the Internet

Where the Internet is the best or only option for learning, sit with them and be available to answer other questions. Discuss what they have learned and what else they might want to find out about.

5 Limit time

Limit use of intelligent systems by younger children, particularly when they are developing their language and communication skills.

6 Use parental controls

Update parental controls on your web browsers and intelligent speakers. Unless you have controls in place – for example, turning off voice purchases in Alexa – your kids could be ordering toys galore and enough pizza to feed the whole street.

If you have music and/or video streaming services check there are restrictions on explicit lyrics/adult content. You don’t want your 5 year-old singing the original version of Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’.

Artificial intelligence and therefore artificial relationships are going to become part and parcel of our lives. It is important that children use such technology safely and don’t lose opportunities to bond with their parents.

After all we don’t want to get to a point when our kids ask: “Alexa? Why do I need parents?”

Specialist support for parents, children and families

The relationships we have as parents and families are the most important in life. Even without new technology they can at times be very challenging.

The Spark’s specialist counsellors can provide support to parents and children in managing the ups and downs of life.  Find out more about counselling and support services with The Spark or have a look at our free online resources for parents and families.

Christmas family fun

Christmas spending does not stop at presents and turkey. We now have plenty of ways to spend cash on Christmas family fun. But as tip 18 for a stress free Christmas shows, Christmas family fun does not have to cost a lot.

Throughout December we will be offering up advice on how to enjoy a stress free Christmas!

You can catch up on all 21 tips for your stress free Christmas on our website.

Christmas family fun doesn’t have to cost a lot of money

The retail industry around Christmas is no longer limited to convincing us we can buy our way to happiness with perfect (expensive) gifts. It now extends to perfect décor for your home, the perfect Christmas dinner and the perfect Christmas family fun days.

Cue lots of adverts about ice skating, trips to Santa’s Grotto, festive films at the cinema, panto and more; and of course the pursuit of perfect Christmas fun for all the family invariably comes with a price tag.

Spending quality time with your kids at Christmas, however, does not have to cost a lot.

christmas family fun

A welcome side-effect of the digital age is that old fashioned board games have become a real novelty for children.

The fact that classic games like Operation, Monopoly, Kerplunk and Snakes & Ladders are not played on a tablet makes them desirable in the eyes of the IPad generation.

Kids may spend most of their time watching, swiping and drawing on their own tablets these days. There is however still a huge attraction in the novelty of getting the old arts and crafts box out.

Spend an afternoon helping them decorate their own Christmas baubles. Let them design and colour in their own ‘wrapping paper’ that you can use to wrap gifts for grandparents.

christmas family fun

Why not get them baking some festive treats?

It might come as a surprise but our digitally savvy kids really enjoy simple activities that offer actual and not virtual interaction with their parents and the world around them.

Catch up on all of our 21 tips here or follow on Twitter and Facebook

youth mental health

Scotland, like the rest of the UK, faces a crisis in youth mental health.

Studies and reports detailing the mental health issues faced by children and adolescents are regularly making the news headlines. The existing NHS-provided child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) are under severe pressure which has led to extensive waiting times.

A consultation on youth mental health services in Scotland

The recent announcement of a consultation on youth mental health services by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) represents a cause for optimism.

Young people and their families/carers will be consulted on what does and does not work. With the intention to use this feedback to restructure the current system.

Radical overhaul is needed

This project represents an important step forward.  For too long the status quo in youth mental health has been deemed fit for purpose.

Similarly the views of the young people using those services have been underrepresented.

With some 17,500 young people referred to CAMHS in the past three years not receiving any support, it is clear a radical overhaul is needed.

What about the young people still waiting for support?

Undoubtedly the insight from the consultation will be invaluable in reshaping youth mental health provision in Scotland. However important and valuable those conclusions may be, they will be small comfort to the thousands of young people currently struggling unsupported with mental health problems.

Particularly when we consider that a number of potential sources of additional support exist right now to tackle these challenges.

Too many young people, not enough appointments

Demand for CAMHS services outstrips the available resources in most of Scotland’s NHS board areas. This leaves many young people to wait anywhere between 18 and 50 weeks for an appointment with a specialist.

The tragedy of this scenario is that third sector organisations like The Spark could support NHS services.

Providing more youth mental health services to meet demand

With professional Children and Young People Counsellors employed by third sector organisations, issues like anxiety and depression could be supported out with CAMHS.

By providing much needed additional resources waiting times could be reduced. Over-stretched CAMHS services could then be focused on those young people with the most complex and challenging issues.

An out of date attitude to youth mental health

Young people are referred to CAMHS for assessment and diagnosis of a mental health problem. Support is, therefore, focused on treating young people once a problem is established. This approach is outdated.

Half of all diagnosable mental health problems in children start before the age of 14.

Furthermore 10% of children aged between 5 and 16 have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem.

Adopting an early intervention approach

An early intervention approach offers a more effective solution by working to prevent minor issues escalating. Third sector organisations like The Spark are leading proponents of early intervention approaches for youth mental health.

Child crying youth mental health

Firstly through school based counselling we are supporting children to deal with life challenges that can escalate in to more serious issues. Secondly we are able to foster life skills like resilience and emotional regulation amongst children in order to deal with the challenges of growing up.

Indeed evaluation of The Spark’s school-based counselling has demonstrated the significant impact early intervention can make on the mental health of young people.

Furthermore the Scottish Government’s Mental Health Strategy (2017-2027) sets out a commitment to review counselling services in schools.

Equipping teachers to tackle youth mental health challenges

Pressure on CAMHS services has resulted in additional responsibilities falling to school teachers. Yet Scottish teachers feel underequipped to provide an initial source of mental health support to young people.

Where school-based counselling provision is not possible, The Spark provides dedicated training courses for teaching staff.

Dedicated training for teachers

Our Relationship First Aid for Teachers and Scottish Mental Health First Aid courses can equip teachers with the skills and knowledge to provide first responder support.

A long-term step in the right direction

The commitment to consult with young people in shaping future policy on mental health services is to be applauded.

Here at The Spark we stand ready to support both the Scottish Government and SAMH however we can.

In the interim however we must use the resources at our disposal to help those young people currently suffering mental health problems.

One of the common problems presented by school pupils to our counsellors is the tricky issue of social media.

Children and young people are the section of our society that first embraced social media platforms.

The highs and lows of social media

They have been the first to experience the highs and lows of social media.

Sadly they are also, in many respects, the least well-equipped to deal with the emotional and mental challenges presented by various social media platforms like Twitter and Snapchat.

We recently caught up with Lucy Gordon, one of our senior Children and Young People counsellors to pick her brain on social media.

Lucy Gordon talks social media platforms

The advent of social media has made us more connected than ever but at what cost to young people?

Lucy: “Social media has become an amazing way for people of all ages to broaden their horizons.

It can open up new possibilities, create new relationships and provide a forum for self-expression. These are all positives that are valuable to children and young people as they grow and develop.

There are however some downsides. In particular from the way children and young people are now bombarded by perfect selfies, images of friends laughing and joking together.

They are constantly scrutinising other people’s lives and lifestyles and making comparisons to their own.

The reality is that a lot of these images are not a true reflection of people’s lives. It is hard for anyone not to be deceived by these photos.

For young people it is especially so and that is one of the ways social media platforms can be bad for their mental and emotional health.”

What is your experience of the negative effects on children and young people of using social media platforms?

Lucy: “What is presented through social media is curated by each individual. Images on Instagram or Snapchat are often taken multiple times. Just to try and get the right angle, the right lighting.

Young people – as many adults do – crop, tweak, add filters and manipulate the images to present an impression of how they want to be perceived. The difficulty comes when young people consume those images of friends and celebrities.

Separating the reality from the artificial reality created on social media is tough.

Too often young people believe the doctored reality and look very unfavourably upon themselves as a result.

Typically this is in terms of their appearance, popularity or perceived success or failure in life.”

Is the challenge of social media just related to the carefully managed images young people consume?

Lucy: “It is a big part of it but not the only one. Social media has become a source of validation for young people. Naturally we all seek the approval of friends and peers and social media has become an extension of that.

We post images and wait in anticipation to see how many ‘likes’ we get to validate our being. When they do not come it can create all sorts of additional anxieties, fears and concerns for young people.”

Instagram like icon

So are we giving social media platforms a big thumbs down?

Lucy: “Absolutely not! Like I mentioned before, social media has the potential to do great, positive things for children and young people.

As a society we need to educate and support children and young people so they fully understand the risks and potential implications of how they behave online and on social media platforms.

The doctored reality often presented on social media has the potential to exacerbate feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety. This can feed into a cycle of unrealistic social, physical and lifestyle expectations.

It can create a real negative impact upon their sense of self-worth, confidence and wellbeing.

That’s the risk we need to guard against through education and support, like our work providing counselling and education programmes in Scottish schools.”

Are the challenges of social media specific to certain platforms?

Lucy: “A recent survey of almost 1,500 14-24 year olds looked at the impact of the four most popular social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

The research for the Royal Society for Public Health found that all four contribute negatively to young people’s sense of self, body image, levels of anxiety, sleep and fear of missing out.

Each platform does have its own challenges but across the board these main issues are present on all of the main platforms commonly used by children and young people.”

How can the work of The Spark in schools help with the challenges of social media?

Lucy: “Our education programmes can help to teach children and young people about the risks and potential implications of using social media, and online media in general.

It’s important to help them fully understand the risks but also make them confident enough to make sense of social media.

Where our counsellors are based in schools they provide a safe and supportive environment for children and young people.

If they feel overwhelmed or anxious about social media, they can find support there.”

Benjamin Clementine

Songs for Sound Minds #18 – ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’ by Benjamin Clementine

On the surface ‘Phantom of Aleppoville’ by Benjamin Clementine is a song about bullying. Dig a little deeper and it becomes a celebration of surviving and learning to be at peace with the experience.

Many of us have experienced bullying and the often profound, negative effects on our self-esteem and confidence. In the song Benjamin Clementine – winner of the 2015 Mercury Prize for his haunting debut album ‘At least for now’ – explores the impact bullying had on him.

We won’t leave you alone

Like so many his bullying occurred in school following the transition from primary to secondary. Combined with the eventual divorce of his parents, Clementine struggled to handle the relentless bullying and feelings of helplessness familiar to almost all victims.

‘We won’t leave you alone
We want you to die
We won’t leave you alone.’

The composition of the song was influenced by Clementine’s study of the work of British psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott. Winnicott determined that bullying – albeit on a lesser scale – could produce similar patterns of trauma in patients as those of war.

Where is Aleppoville?

This theme features most obviously in the setting for Clementine’s recollections. Aleppoville – the ‘little city of Aleppo’- is where children experience bullying according to Clementine.

It may not be intentional, but to choose Aleppo as the location of his song is surely more than coincidence. The real Aleppo has of course been at the centre of the ongoing Syrian civil war that has devastated the lives of countless children and families.

Choosing forgiveness

Benjamin ClementineDespite the trauma of his experiences, Clementine draws the song to a conclusion based on his chosen path of acceptance and forgiveness. Realising that he will never know why he was bullied, he has forgiven them – characterised as a single individual, ‘Billy the bully’.

‘Billy the bully, it’s alright
You’ve been forgiven
Come on now Zacchaeus
Come down from your sycamore tree
We’re dancing, roses are found dancing’

Clementine visualises himself inviting Billy to come down from his perch and join him as Jesus of Nazareth did with Zacchaeus the hated tax collector. The traditional roles have been reversed: the bully is the one now fearfully hiding in the tree whilst the victim is free to dance on the ground below.

What makes a bully a bully?

By swapping the roles of the bully and victim Clementine highlights an important truth: that bullies tend to bully as a reaction to anxieties, pain and unhappiness in their own lives. Interestingly it was Winnicott who first hypothesised the link between anti-social behaviour and an inadequate or ruptured home environment.

According to the NSPCC, nearly half of all children and young people are bullied at some point in their school lives.  Childline reported 24,000 counselling sessions with children about bullying in 2016/17.  The effects on the young person’s mental health can be startling and the NHS website states that bullying can lead to self-harm, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Reaching a state of forgiveness is a big challenge for the victims of bullying. Supporting them to reach the kind of contentment found by Clementine is something that we at The Spark embrace as a central purpose of our counselling and support services.

Equally we have a duty to consider the wider issue of how bullies are created. By supporting children who struggle with issues like family breakdown and anger we can prevent them becoming another ‘Billy the bully’.

The Spark’s Children & Young People’s counsellors work in primary and secondary schools supporting individuals to address these inter-connected issues. By working with children dealing with difficult life experiences, we can help to reduce the incidence of bullying in schools.

If you know of someone who is being bullied or whose mental health has been affected by bullying call us on our freephone number 0808 802 0050 or complete and enquiry form.

Find out more about our counselling services and our work providing school-based counsellors.

Songs For Sound Minds – music tracks written as an anthem to overcoming the storms of life. The songs that give hope in those times when we are struggling.

Find more Songs for Sound Minds or suggest a track on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #SongsForSoundMinds

school pupils

The Spark is at the forefront of efforts to improve the mental and emotional wellbeing of school pupils in Scotland. It is widely recognised that a child’s ability and readiness to learn can be compromised by difficult life experiences.

Through counselling, education programmes and training for teachers we are helping schools manage the emotional and mental wellbeing of pupils. Thus allowing teachers and pupils to focus purely on learning and raising attainment.

School pupils come first thanks to counselling services from The Spark

Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP recently visit Abercromby Primary to see the impact that school-based counselling has had on raising attainment. The school has partnered with The Spark since the start of 2017 to provide counselling for pupils.

During his visit the Deputy First Minister met with pupils, teachers and parents to hear about the benefits of placing youth counsellors in schools. At the conclusion of his visit, the Minister hailed the positive impact of school-based counselling:

school pupils school-based counselling John Swinney The Spark“I was delighted to visit Abercromby Primary School in Clackmannanshire and see first-hand the positive impact and effect that the Spark counselling service is having on young people at the school.

This service is providing a safe space to identified children, giving them an opportunity to explore their feelings and emotions.

Our children’s health and emotional wellbeing is one of the most important considerations that we must take as parents, carers and teachers. Counselling can play a key role in improving pupil health and wellbeing and can have a direct positive impact on attainment.”

Launched at the end of 2016, the Pupil Equity Fund was established to help close the attainment gap. Schools across Scotland have turned to The Spark to support those efforts through school-based counselling.

Supporting pupils dealing with anger issues, parental conflict & family breakdown

Counselling can support pupils as they process significant life challenges. Negative influences upon their lives – parental conflict, poverty, bullying and family breakdown – can severely compromise a child’s readiness to learn.

Mental and emotional support through counselling can reduce the impact of such issues and provide pupils with enhanced opportunities to realise their potential.

Counselling makes a positive impact on young lives

Through counselling and other support services, Abercromby Primary plus 10 other schools in Clackmannanshire have benefitted from The Spark’s therapeutic services for children.

Measured against the Scottish Government’s SHANARRI* indicators, the following outcomes were achieved by the end of the 2016/17 academic year:

  • School pupils that experienced an improvement in their distress levels had an average 9-point shift. A significant improvement by clinical standards
  • Feedback from teachers confirmed that counselling is positively impacting upon behaviour, concentration levels, pupil motivation and pupil resilience
  • 89% of parent responses stated there had been some positive change/lots of positive change in their children.

Youth counsellors have worked on a wide-range of issues with school pupils during the academic year. Presenting problems illustrate the significant challenges facing children and young people growing up in Scotland. These included:

  • Anger and aggression
  • Trauma
  • Anxiety
  • Parental mental health issues
  • Kinship/foster care
  • Loss and bereavement.

Supporting parents and families

Parental feedback from our work in Clackmannanshire confirmed that parents considered counselling a valuable service for their children. Furthermore they believe counselling is having a positive impact upon children in terms of:

  • How happy they are to attend school
  • Attendance and timekeeping
  • Their behaviour at home
  • Their willingness to talk to parents about personal difficulties.

school pupilsUtilising the Pupil Equity Fund to provide counselling is an effective way to close the attainment gap. We have been engaged by schools across Scotland to support in excess of 5,000 pupils during the 2017/18 academic year.

Visit The Spark website to find out how our Children and Young People counselling and programmes could benefit your school. Read about our counselling services for Primary schools and counselling in Secondary schools.

You can also download a copy of the Clackmannanshire Council evaluation referred to in this article.

Relationship First Aid for Teachers

Find out more about the Relationship First Aid for Teachers courses which are delivered throughout the academic year in locations across Scotland.

Counselling in schools

To find out more about how The Spark’s school-based counselling and support services could benefit your school, complete an enquiry form or contact the CYP Team on 0141 222 3910.

* SHANARRI – safe, healthy, active, nurtured, achieving, respected, responsible and included.