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Roland Martin - Issue #46


Roland Martin

March 7 · Issue #46 · View online

Headmaster - City of London Freemen's school; Chief Officer - City of London; Chair - Society of Heads - '...write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing' Benjamin Franklin

Senior school assembly - 6.iii.17 - wellbeing, flourishing, and positive mental health.

My notes from this week's Headmaster's Assembly
I was fortunate to hear a number of impressive speakers last week at the annual conference of The Society of Heads, speaking about an array of educational issues. One of these was Dr Hazel Harrison, a clinical psychologist who spoke on ‘Neuroscience and Wellbeing’. And I thought it would be helpful to unpack some of what Dr Harrison said in assemblies 
this week and next.
Against alarming research, statistics that tell us that 1 in 10 young people are presented with a mental health concern; given the fact that in her line of work, the list of patients whom she will discuss in clinic each week present – consistently - with the same types of problem, Dr Harrison was theming her thoughts about what we could all do to care for our mental health and well being. It was essentially about preventing negative mental health by nurturing positive mental health.
Although we are alarmed that mental health seems to be deteriorating in young people, we need to acknowledge as a society that everyone has a mental health – whether young or older – and that there are times when our mental health is good and times when it is not so good; I certainly know that there are days when I feel much more healthy than others when it comes to my wellbeing and all manner of things can effect that: work; life; work-life balance; a difficult conversation; a challenge; a disagreement with a family member or work colleague. Psychologists talk about a ‘Mental Health Continuum’ and this is what it looks like in graph form. Dr Harrison’s graph was much cooler as it had lots of little Lego people all over it, a metaphor that she extended throughout her seminar.
The bell curve
You will see from this bell curve that most of the population enjoys what is called ‘moderate’ mental health but that at either end of the curve, we have smaller proportions who are said to have a ‘mental disorder’ (not sure that I am enamored with that term) or who are ‘flourishing’ which is – I guess – where all of us would want to be for at least most of the time. Dr Martin Seligman, who was the American Psychological Association President, and founder of Founder of Positive Psychology, suggested in 1998 that psychologists had been getting it wrong in their treatment of people’s mental health and the whole thing needed to be flipped: rather than focusing on how to treat people at this end of the bell curve, they needed to focus at the other end to see what these people were getting so right to ‘flourish’*.
Semper floreamus?
Some of the things we can all do to ensure that we are flourishing is simple stuff. But I think it is important to acknowledge that we are all very likely to find ourselves at different places of the bell curve at different points of our lives and potentially at different points during the course of a week – or even a day. And there is nothing wrong with that. From a personal point of view, I think that if I was ‘flourishing’ all the time, I would probably annoy myself! Our brains adapt, learn and change, responding to our environment, to our experiences, and to time. That is one of the things that makes us quite miraculous as beings. Dr Harrison quite nicely referred to the human brain as metaphorically being constructed from ‘86 billion pieces of lego’ which I rather liked – it’s a complex and wonderful thing – not unlike those fractals Revd Prior was showing us a few weeks’ ago.
Do it now ...
A simple experiment: get a piece of paper and write your name on it. Then write your name using your less dominant hand. Now close your eyes and write your name with your eyes closed with your dominant hand. If you want, try doing with your left with your eyes closed. What do you see? What I expect you see is that although there may be some considerable discrepancy between your writing when it comes to dominant and non-dominant hand, there is likely to be very little difference between your dominant hand with eyes open and your dominant hand with eyes shut!
How does that work?
The reason for this is that you writing your name is a skill you have learned. You have probably written your name virtually every day of your life – sometimes multiple times - and because you have done that, it has become a learned skill. Your brain will not be working very hard when you are writing your name because it doesn’t have to. This short video explains rather well…
THE BRAIN WITH DAVID EAGLEMAN | Cup Stacking Champion | PBS - YouTube
So what?
There are of course two reasons for watching this clip. The first is that it is a ‘wow’ moment and cannot help to bring a smile to the face watching Austin (and that is probably good for our wellbeing!); the second is that it establishes that skills can be learned. With practice, we can learn the skill of nurturing our mental health. And I will say a little more about that next week.
Beyond the Assembly Hall; further reading/watching
Words highlighted and linked in blue will send you off to twitter feeds (in the case of Dr Harrison) and further explorations of the ideas raised in my assembly to students, some too long, some too specialised*, for a wide ranging age range of students to sit through, but they’re here for added/extended interest.
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