Being mindful towards mental health in Drama

Mindfulness is everywhere. A quick search on the Internet for mindfulness in education creates a myriad of different projects, resources and news stories. It has become a big and important thing in education, and rightly so. Four in ever Five 12 to 16 year olds said, in responding to a survey, that they have had or are currently experiencing mental health problems (Ellis, 2017).

Drama, and art, can be a fantastic way of processing problems. I’ve seen so many characters created, monologues written or physical theatre pieces developed which have drawn upon a students own experiences of issues and problems. Thus Drama can provide a fantastic form of catharsis, but Drama in the curriculum is not Drama Therapy. Drama Therapy can be a fantastic way of helping with these problems, but the vast majority of Drama Teachers are not Drama Therapists and simply having a go isn’t good enough. As Nicola Marshall (2016) points out, the gritty and raw topics that we often choose in Drama to create deep discussion and dramatic potential can, in reality, re-traumatise vulnerable young people.

Whilst so many young people come forward with their problems, some do not, or when they do inform the school, the details of it are not filtered down to you. So how can you help vulnerable children succeed in the Drama Studio and safeguard against further hurting the vulnerable children you don’t know about yet?

We can make sure that we are questioning the content of our projects, texts and stimuli to understand how they might trigger deep and painful experiences in some young people. It isn’t a question of not doing those topics anymore but one of how can we be more aware that our approach to the topic, and the way we handle the delivery of the content, so that it helps rather than hinders a young persons recovery.

Marshall (2016) feels that so much of our success in delivering  difficult and complex content in Drama is through the relationships we build and the culture we create in the Drama Studio. A culture that is all inclusive and understanding – where all children feel safe and calm enough to be able to learn.

A way of developing that culture is through mindfulness. It’s important to start with understanding what mindfulness is. Mark Williams, founder and leader of the UK’s largest study on the impact of mindfulness in schools, states that mindfulness is “an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment [and] allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.” (Williams cited in NHS, 2016).

With the situation of mental health in schools as it is, what responsibility should be take as teachers? Is it even our responsibility? If it is our responsibility, what can we do and will mindfulness help at all?

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that using mindfulness helps because it “profoundly alters the structure and function of the brain to improve quality of both thought and feeling [and] enhances memory, and reduces stress and anxiety” (Verkerk, 2016). But it is “not a ‘one-stop-shop’ for our problems” and “it is intended be included as a support and not as a replacement for any other kind of therapy” (Verkerk, 2016). It is sketching that must become daily in our routine, even down to the way we talk about the work and give instructions.

The Mindfulness in Schools Project has some fantastic resources, ideas and tips you could use to develop mindfulness in your Drama Studio, but here are a few things I’ve done on a day-to-day level to develop mindfulness into my teaching practice. I am certainly not there yet, but I’m trying.

I talk a lot about how we react to emotions and relationship between the our emotions and what triggers them. This can be something as simply as stating that it is okay to be angry and tired at a test on a Friday afternoon and that you understand the trigger but that we must also understand that we have to move on and process that in a positive way to make progress in our learning. Bigger picture wise, it is more important to explain and talk through how some people react differently to seeing a violent image, that that is okay to both react differently to others or see others react differently to you  and that every response is valid and useful.

I also keep a private mood board available when we are studying controversial or personal topics – that whilst I encourage students to participate fully putting aside any personal differences with the material in the hope that it may well help to students to see that material with a new perspective – that can be hard to do. Very hard. I have a private mood board where students during the lesson or at the end of the lesson can, without making a big deal of it or drawing a massive amount of attention to it, display their mood truthfully and honestly and I can adjust the approach or the content appropriately.

References

Ellis, R. Mental health problems rife among teenagers but teachers lack skills to help, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/mar/26/mental-health-teenagers-teachers, The Guardian, Machester, 2017.

Marshall, N. Communicating fear, Teaching Drama, Rhinegold, London, 2016.

NHS. Mindfulness, http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/mindfulness.aspx, NHS, 2016.

Verkerk, E. Mind over matter, Teaching Drama, Rhinegold, London, 2016.

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