Mental health: Stamp Out Stigma...

Written by:  Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Making a difference: The Hendon School Stamp out Stigma mental health conferences have proved to be a huge success

Students at Hendon School have organised and run their own mental health conference for the past three years. Emma Lee-Potter hears about their work to Stamp Out Stigma and raise awareness about mental health

The pressures on young people have never been greater. From anxieties caused by technology, social media and exam stress to cyber-bullying and problems at home, today’s youngsters face a plethora of challenges in their lives.

But students at a north London school have seized the initiative and come up with some inspiring ways to provide mental health support to their peers.

For the last three years pupils at Hendon School have organised and run their own annual mental health conference. In addition, they have launched their own mental health app, created videos and written a journal about their work for Leeds Beckett University.

Students at the 1,200-pupil school have also been proactive in encouraging the whole community to talk openly “if they are having a bad day”.

When Mental Health First Aid England visited the school in 2018 as part of its #HandsUp4HealthyMinds campaign pupils and staff were happy to talk about how they support their own mental health. Their answers, filmed for a YouTube video, ranged from “I like to write poems and let out all my emotions on to paper” to “I do Sri Lankan and Bollywood dancing”.

Hendon School’s initiatives are timely. Research published recently by Mental Health First Aid England revealed that the proportion of youngsters aged between four and 24 reporting a long-standing mental health condition increased six-fold between 1995 and 2014.

Meanwhile official NHS statistics recently showed that one in eight people aged under 19 in England has a mental health disorder. This figure rises to one in six for those aged 17 to 19.

Commenting on the NHS figures in November last year, Imran Hussain, Action for Children’s director of policy and campaigns, said: “Every day our frontline services see children and teenagers struggling to understand how they fit into the world. They have to contend with things like intense pressure at school, bullying, problems at home, all while navigating a complex world with constant stimulation from social media.”

Hendon School’s work in raising awareness of mental health issues dates back to 2015 when year 11 pupil Sharmarke Dhaqane came up with the idea of running a one-off mental health conference for local schools.

Noelle Doona, assistant headteacher with responsibility for community, encouraged Sharmarke and six fellow students to apply for social action funding of £1,000 from the children’s charity WE and the Mayor of London’s office. The pupils’ application was successful and they used the money to fund London’s first student-led mental health conference in July 2016.

Entitled SOS – Stamp Out Stigma, the conference was held in the school hall and featured a range of workshops and keynote speakers, all aimed at helping young people to improve their own mental health.

Heads up: Scenes from the 2017 Stamp out Stigma mental health conference organised by students at Hendon School

Everything, from the budgeting to the goody bags, was managed by the pupils themselves and around 100 people, including pupils from other schools, attended. Hendon School’s mental health team also launched the Barnet Young People Mental Health Charter, an agreement negotiated with the local Mental Health Trust to improve mental health services for young people.

“The conference finished at 3pm and at 3:01pm the team all threw themselves on the floor in exhaustion and said ‘that’s it – we’re done’,” Ms Doona recalled. “And then by 3:10pm they were saying ‘right, when’s the next one?’ They had given up all their own time outside lessons, attended council meetings, made phone calls, set the budget, done everything and now they were talking about the next one.”

Finance for the second conference was initially hard to find. The mental health team, which had grown from seven pupils to 30, from year 8 through to the sixth form, organised cake sales, tombolas, “sponge the senior leadership team” and other events to raise the money themselves.

The team members were adamant that the conference should be free to attend and they invited 15 local schools, members of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, NHS Barnet Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Barnet Council, the Mayor of Barnet and many others. They held 30 workshops during the day, offering everything from a session on “what is mental health?” to problem-solving, yoga, music and dance, and 300 people attended.

“This small project had really escalated,” said Ms Doona. “The students negotiated everything themselves – and they were phenomenal.”

The third conference, in July 2018, was held at Middlesex University. The university provided its main atrium for free, Barnet CCG provided some funding, mental health campaigners Jonny Benjamin and Chrissy B spoke about mental illness and more than 400 people came.

“One of the evaluation forms sticks in my mind,” said Ms Doona. “It said ‘you’re all amazing. This will undoubtedly save lives’.”

The success of the school’s three mental health conferences has had a huge impact on pupils and staff alike. Members of the mental health team, all sporting badges with the team’s distinctive Stamp Out Stigma footprint logo (pictured), are instantly recognisable around the school, and each year more pupils ask to join.

“A lot of things have happened alongside the conferences but people are now talking about mental health issues in a way that they weren’t four or five years ago,” said Ms Doona. “Both Hendon School and five of the individuals involved have won national awards for their work. Other schools and organisations are really starting to take note.

“The kids feel empowered. They want to have conversations and it’s become the norm to talk about mental health. They ask people how they are and if they say ‘I’m fine’ they ask ‘are you really?’

“The number who want to go and do social work or work in the mental health field has increased because they see the need for it. They see that things happen to people but that we can make it better. It has been a real learning curve for all of us.”

Other initiatives, including the school’s mental health week and the mental health curriculum (pupils in years 8 to 12 have 16 lessons specifically focused on mental health during the course of the year), have made a difference too. Pupils’ wellbeing has improved, stress levels have gone down and no-one feels embarrassed about talking to the school counsellor or members of the peer support team.

Schools in Barnet, including Hendon School, have access to Kooth, an online counselling and emotional wellbeing platform for children and young people, which youngsters can access for free via their mobile phones, tablets and computers.

The Hendon pupils have also designed their own app, working with students from Middlesex University and with funding from Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health Trust.

The Speak Out Barnet app provides support and advice to young people with mental health issues and includes a mood tracker and information signposting young people to local mental health services.

The mental health team recently managed to secure funding from the local CCG for Mental Health First Aid training for staff in local schools. Ms Doona has trained as a Mental Health First Aid instructor herself and is running her first courses at the school this term.

Other ways in which the focus on mental health has had a positive impact on pupils include the launch of an anti-gang team. Mentored by the mental health team, the anti-gang team won an award for its work to raise awareness of gang and knife violence. The team delivered an anti-gang conference to 150 primary school pupils, with speakers including the police and a former gang member.

“I’m very much of the view that you should never say no to a pupil if they want to start a project,” said Ms Doona. “When Sharmarke suggested the conference, we said ‘Let’s see what we can do. Where do you want to take this? How can we help you?’.”

Sharmarke is now at university but he still comes to the mental health conferences. He was nominated as an iwill ambassador for his work in leading social action at the school and in 2016 Theresa May presented him with a Points of Light award at the Houses of Parliament.

“Without him none of this would have happened,” said Ms Doona. “I’m really proud of what the whole mental health team has achieved. I feel a glow inside because it started off with one person and it’s become the whole school.

“There’s still plenty to do. It’s never going to be one of those things where you can say you’ve achieved everything. But when people say to the students ‘we’ve heard about your campaign’, the kids realise that people are listening and that they’ve really made a difference to their own community. We’ve had an impact on people and that’s all we ever asked. We thought that if we could help one person then we’d done the right thing.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

Further information & resources

  • Mental Health First Aid England recently launched the #HandsUp4HealthyMinds toolkit – a set of resources to help teachers, carers and parents identify signs of mental ill health in young people aged eight to 24. For more information, go to
  • Schools across England may be entitled to at least one free place on a Youth MHFA course for school staff through one of Mental Health First Aid England’s funded programmes:


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