Prevent suffering or simply react to it? The answer should be obvious.
This is a more personal comment than I usually write. Why? Because I was so stunned by the news recently reported in Schools Week, that only 10% of school leaders are likely to be able to access mental health support under a scheme that the Government previously promised would be available for all.
That the scheme is unlikely to reach as many school leaders as hoped is very disappointing. But I was even more disappointed by what is being proposed. The tender for the 'School Leaders' Mental Health and Wellbeing Support Package' states that the contractor will deliver "a programme of professional supervision to school leaders who are experiencing mental health and wellbeing challenges through virtual or telephone-based peer support and one-to-one counselling".
Any investment in reducing suffering is, of course, to be welcomed. But the scheme appears to be simply reactive to suffering, not preventative of it. It is tailored to those who are already experiencing mental health and wellbeing challenges. Having worked closely with school leaders for many years, I long to see serious Government investment in measures intended to prevent or minimise avoidable suffering arising in the first place.
Having the good fortune to work for a law firm with a clear social purpose "to improve lives, communities and society" and knowing what school leaders were going through during the first national Covid-19 lockdown, I created a meditation/wellbeing workshop to help people face what they were facing. A few other factors helped. I was introduced to meditation over 30 years ago when living at a Benedictine monastery, spent time studying at the Dalai Lama's monastery in India and have helped lead an organisation introducing meditation into schools around the world.
Simple in form and content, the free workshop introduces meditation as a simple but radically effective path to greater peace, wellbeing and community. The community focus is key: as we establish greater peace in ourselves, we become places of peace for those around us.
It's been a joy to deliver this workshop to over a thousand school leaders across the country and to spend time with such inspiring, dedicated people. But the greatest joy always comes from hearing what happens afterwards.
This testimony from the Principal of a secondary school speaks so powerfully about the value of investing in preventing suffering (even as we rightly support those who are suffering), helping people form the best relationship with all that life offers us and throws at us.
“Career pressures have in the past left me completely broken. Where medical therapies have proved useless for me (I am allergic to modern anti-depressants) talking therapies were my only support option and therapy got me back on an even keel and working again. Returning to school leadership has been a joy, though not without its stresses and strains, particularly in the era of the pandemic.
I was invited to an introduction session on meditation organised by my MAT, who provided the session as a support for headteachers. I was sceptical to say the least and I did not go in expecting to gain much. However, the clarity of the presentation was such that for the first time I saw how meditation might help me to deal better with my everyday challenges.
It is hard to express the significant difference the practice makes. Apart from feeling calmer, when discussing whether I should arrange a session for staff I asked a colleague whether they thought the practice was having any effect on me. I was genuinely shocked by their reply - that in the 10+ years they had known me they had never seen me so calm and balanced despite us facing the toughest challenges we have ever faced and that my calmness was becoming infectious across the organisation.
Therapeutic options are incredibly limited in schools, so it's essential we explore ways to help those in need. I do not begin to understand how meditation is having such a positive effect on my relationships. The impact is deep. Those of us who have completed the training all report being calmer and more focused, not just for ourselves, but for those around us.
I have no doubt that the ripples of this training will continue to travel for many years to come.”
Only 10 per cent of school leaders look set to get mental health support, despite a previous promise to make the new government scheme available to all.