Sometimes we just need to stop


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Alan White

Alan White

“Beware the bareness of a busy life – Socrates.

Life is becoming more and more hectic for all of us. I’m finding it hard recently to remember when I last had nothing to do. Don’t get me wrong, I believe it is important for our well-being that we have goals and are motivated to work hard to get to where we want to be in life. However sometimes we can get so caught up in our responsibilities in work, our relationships and our daily routines that we forget to simply stop, take some time to ourselves and simply switch off for a while.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently who is a psychotherapist, working with teenagers. I had contacted him to refer yet another young person in crises. He told me that he would contact the person but that he was extremely busy. He then commented that there seems to be more and more personal suffering these days.

This is something that I have also noticed. Recently I have been wondering to myself why this is. I was finding it difficult to come up with any answers that made sense to me, until I was at an event with a small group of students this week. During the lunch break I overheard one of the students say to another, “I found that app that fixes my face in photos!” when I asked what they were talking about they were only too eager to tell me about a filter that can be used to make someone nose smaller, cheeks thinner eyes bigger etc.

Can you imagine living in a culture that not only requires you to need such a thing, but has also normalised it to such a point that my shock at the fact that young people used this in every photo they took of themselves, couldn’t be understood. In a culture where everyone feels the need to change how they look digitally before posting a picture, is it any wonder that young people being to feel that they are not good enough as themselves. This is having a catastrophic effect on people’s self-esteem which is consequently having an adverse and often extreme effect on mental well-being.

So as well as our lives getting busier, we are also being bombarded by images that have been digitally altered to portray perfection. This is a perfection that many people, especially young people feel the need to live up to. This can begin to take up a lot of a person’s time, either thinking about or partaking in this digital remastering of the self. When we can no longer differentiate what is real and what is an illusion or an abstract form of reality, is it any wonder that we begin to lose our sense of self and our self-esteem.

The quote that I began with reminds me not only of how we must be careful of how busy we let ourselves become but also how we must be aware of how our own internal narrative can become. Our inner dialogue can become overwhelming and full of self-deprecating thoughts and therefore we need to take the time to develop our own sense of self-acceptance. Our current culture is counterproductive to positive well-being and thus we must become more aware of this, if we are to learn to be satisfied and content with the uniqueness of who we are.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description


Listening to understand


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Alan White

Alan White

“Loneliness doesn’t come from having no one around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that are important to you.” – Carl Jung

How many times have you had a conversation, and after it finished, you struggled to remember what you spoke about? More importantly, how many times have you struggled to remember what the other person said? When we interact with others, we tend to listen to respond, rather than listen to understand. While the other person is speaking, we are preparing what we are going to say next in our minds.

We do this for many reasons, such as, making sure we say the right thing. To ensure we tell the person what we want them to know or even sometimes, we do it when we are simply not interested in what the other person has to say. It’s not always a serious thing if we communicate with some people like this. However when we communicate in this way with the people who are closest to us, we can often feel like we are not understood.

We all need to feel like we are valued and heard. One of the greatest gifts we can give to another person, is our undivided attention. Taking the time to really listen to someone can be empowering. Both for the person talking and the listener. This need is particularly true for young people. Children and teenagers are told what to do and given instructions a lot. This obviously has positives. Young people need and actually like structure in their lives. However it can be difficult for them to get the opportunity to really be heard.

We are living busier and busier lives these days, often bordering on the frantic. We rush from one thing to the next, rarely taking the time to really talk and listen to the important people in our lives. When we ask someone close to us, “any news?” we often get a quick synopsis of their day and not much else.

Young people can have a very delicate sense of self-esteem. The adults in their lives have a key role in helping them to strengthen this sense of self-worth and actively listening can play a major role. If a child or adolescent does not feel listened to, it can often make them question their value and affect their sense of self-worth.

So how can we improve our communication and actively listen to someone? Active listening is not just a case of being quiet when someone else is talking. To feel understood, a person, especially a young person who is developing their sense of self needs to feel not only heard but understood. This means that when they are telling you something about themselves, or something that happened to them, it needs to first of all, be taken seriously. Young people are often reluctant to talk to adults about what is going on for them. So if they do confide in us, it’s a big deal.

When actively listening, it is also important to seek clarification if you are unsure what the person meant. This shows that you are interested in what they are saying and want to understand their perspective. To show that that you are listening, it is important to repeat back what they have told you, in your own words. This shows that you do understand what they are telling you.

Another aspect of listening, especially to children and teenagers is that, it is important not to Judge. If you come across as judgemental or critical, they will simply shut down, and it may be difficult to get them to communicate again. Many young people are quite insecure in themselves, as they are trying to figure out not only themselves, but where they fit in, in the world. If they feel judged in any way, they will retreat and shut off open communication.

The old saying, a problem shared is a problem halved, comes to mind here. Having caring adults in their lives is key to the healthy emotional development of children and teenagers. If a child feels that they have someone they can go to, no matter what they will feel safe and cared for. This is an inherent need in all of us and if met, can be one of the greatest gifts we can ever receive.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

Self-Evaluating & Goal setting! Why over committing to our resolutions can be damaging to our well-being!


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Alan White

Alan White

It’s that time of year again when many of us have set out our new year’s resolutions and promise ourselves that this time things will be different. We are declaring aloud for all to hear, the monumental changes we intend to make in our lives. Whether it’s losing weight, quitting smoking, learning a new skill or changing careers, many of us have something in our lives that we would like to change.

Unfortunately, year after year, many of us fail to make any lasting changes in our lives. Think of the typical scenes in gyms this time of year, where it’s difficult to find any space to exercise as they are so packed. By February or March, things inevitably quieten down as many people lose hope in their ability to sustain the unrealistic goals they set themselves at the beginning of the year.

It is extremely difficult for many of us to make positive changes in our lives. I believe that one of the main reasons for this, is that we often try to do too much in a very short space of time. Over Christmas I found myself feeling very overwhelmed by what 2017 would bring. I have many exciting events coming up this year. A new house, getting married, releasing a new book. These are all positive things obviously, but I felt overwhelmed because I was unsure how I was going to be able to successfully complete my goals.

After some self-evaluation and realising why I was feeling overwhelmed, I quickly began to feel excited again about the coming year. How did I do this? By taking time to reflect and evaluate what was coming up. The first thing I remembered is that we think in pictures not in words. This is significant because, thinking in pictures often means that we can see the things we want to achieve, and the work we have to do to get there as a single event in time.

However that is obviously not the case. We tend to overestimate what we can achieve in a day and underestimate what we can achieve in a week, a month or a year. This is why it’s a good idea to reflect and even write out, not only your goals, but also your pathway to your goals, even possibly developing a personal timeline to do so. This reminds us that we don’t have to do everything at once and that we can make the changes we want in our lives over a period of time, little by little.

The French have a nice saying when it comes to making change, “little by little, the bird makes its nest”. If we can adopt this approach to our resolutions or goals, we are much more likely to stick to them. Also something we forget to do when we are trying to achieve our goals or make significant changes in our lives, is to have some fun while doing so. If we can enjoy the process a little, rather than feeling anxious about it, we will be more likely to stick to our task.

Even though we may find it difficult to change ourselves, resolutions and setting new goals are very important. Successfully implementing change in our lives can play a significant role in our happiness. To be happy we need to work to improve our quality of life. In order to do this we need to self-evaluate and plan for improvement. Before resolving to change anything in your life it is important to first ask yourself some key questions.

  1. What do I really want? The “really” part is important here. Do I want it for me or do I want it because everyone is telling me I should want it? Unless our goal is something that we really want to achieve ourselves, we will lose interest in what we are trying to do. Look at students who are facing into state exams this year. Many are not motivated to study, as it is not them who have decided what course they want to do but their parents and their teachers, telling them they should or have to.
  2. Is what I want achievable? This is one of the main reasons many of us fail to keep our resolutions and give up on our goals. We try to achieve too much too soon. For example, saying that you are going to lose 3 stone in a month is normally not achievable. However if you resolve to make small changes to diet and exercise and increase these changes over the course of a year, you are much more likely to stick to your goal.
  3. Is what I am doing helping me get what I want? It’s important to look at your behaviours, routines, thoughts and attitudes and honestly ask yourself this question. If the things you are doing are not helping you achieve your goals, you must change something in order to do so. This can be difficult, as often we don’t see our thoughts or behaviours as being the problem. However when we are trying to change something in our lives, we become naturally drawn back into old thought and behaviour patterns that stifle the change we want to make.
  4. What else could I do? If what I am doing now isn’t helping me, is there another way I could do things? For example if I want to lose weight but I want to watch TV and relax in the evenings after work or school, maybe I could get up earlier and exercise in the morning!
  5. When can I do it? Not only is it important to plan how to achieve goals but you must also decide when you can implement these changes. Again be careful of trying too much too soon and give yourself enough time to gradually implement the changes?
  6. What is my plan? At this point you are ready to see your pathway to your goal more clearly and envision a clear plan to success!

If you are planning any changes in your life this year, don’t forget to be mindful of your inner critic. There will be times when things don’t go to plan and remember that failure is not permanent. FAIL simply means, First Attempt In Learning!

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

Looking Back!


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Alan White

Alan White

Last March when I wrote my first piece for Creaghcastle Publishing, I was very nervous to say the least. I have learned over the past year that, when writing anything, you are putting a piece of yourself out there. The thought of this frightened me if I’m honest, and looking back over my first few contributions, I can clearly see myself skirting around my ideas, along with a reticence to include much about myself.

Over the weeks I have become more comfortable with the idea of sharing my ideas and experiences. This week I have been thinking a lot about the change we can make to the lives of young people. One thought that really struck me was, is this making a difference? I did an interview recently for a newspaper (all will be revealed in the New Year), and while chatting with the journalist, we spoke about the need to ensure mental well-being education is a core part of school life.

To do this, well-being needs to be both explicit and implicit within our schools. Explicit in that it is taught to students, and implicit in that a culture of well-being needs to be woven into the fabric of our daily routines within schools. This includes how we interact with each other within school communities, how we negotiate problems we face and how we prepare our students academically.

I believe that we are edging closer to an open attitude towards well-being education, and I am hopeful for the future. Over and over we hear in the media that we must get Mental Health education into our schools. I agree with this, but we must now begin to look at how we get mental health education into our schools.

Over the last 2 weeks along with two of my colleagues, we have started a 30 day well-being programme with the 2nd years in our school. Although we are only ten days into this programme, we have noticed that the students have responded very well to it. We have also gathered data on how they experienced the programme. This was very positive and they are looking forward to the next part of the programme in the New Year.

Many parents are now asking for their children in other year groups to get the opportunity to take part in the programme. I will talk about this programme in a future piece, but for now I want to highlight the openness from both parents and students to engage in well-being education.

This is very encouraging and is a small step in the right direction. This year, for me, has been very much a learning process. I have had my first book published, Choices. I have launched a 30 day mental well-being challenge called Changes, endorsed by the HSE. This has now also passed clinical trials, and I am working on what will hopefully be a new resource for primary schools in the New Year.

Writing these blogs every 2 weeks has been an amazing experience for me and hase really taught me a lot about myself. I am looking forward to writing many more in 2017. As more and more of us begin to see the value of well-being education, I hope that next year will be the year of how we begin to introduce this into schools, not the year of we should.

I would like to wish everyone a happy Christmas and new year. Please remember to take time out over the coming weeks for yourself. As well as being a special time it can be for some a stressful time. This time of year can be a time to reset and begin again with fresh energy and new hope.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

Self-Talk – Why our worst enemy often lives between our own two ears!


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Alan White

Alan White

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my like, most of which never happened” – Mark Twain

We often talk to ourselves in a way that we wouldn’t dream of talking to someone else. I’m stupid, I will never learn, I’m always making stupid mistakes. The list goes on and on. I have never been criticised as fiercely by anyone, more than I have criticised and criticise myself. Many of us tend to fall into an internal narrative where we ourselves become the arch villain in our own story.

That to me is what self-talk really is. An internal narrative that we tell ourselves every day. It is this narrative that shapes how we see ourselves, how we see the world and most importantly how we see ourselves in the world and interact with it. For many of us this narrative becomes a barrier to fulfilling lives and can become an all-consuming tale of woe that creates feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. There are many factors that shape our internal dialogue. Our experiences from a young age however can be a defining factor in how we view ourselves for the rest of our lives.

If we are not allowed to try and fail for ourselves and learn from mistakes, as I spoke about last week in my blog on resilience. We can begin to feel inadequate and our internal narrative can quickly become tainted with negativity.

The most important relationship we will ever have, is the relationship we have with ourselves. To develop a positive relationship we need to rewrite our personal narrative and change our self-talk. This can be quite challenging for many of us as our “story” has been written over many years and has been told over and over again in our minds.

Despite being challenging, it is possible to change our story and in fact it will probably be the most important thing we ever do for ourselves. Research has shown that when we form new thinking patterns, our brains adapt and actually start creating new neural networks. In essence we can rewire our own minds through understanding our thought patterns and actively and consciously changing them.

Looking at the above quote by Mark Twain, there is a lot that we can learn from this short yet powerful sentence. Most of us spend a lot of time and energy imagining and worrying about future events that may, or more likely, may not happen. This thinking is unfortunately innate in us. It’s our natural negativity bias that we once needed to survive the dangers that used to be ever present when we were evolving over the millennia.

We have since created safer environments to live in and left the dangers of our early ancestors behind. However our negativity bias remains. The good news is that an awareness of our thought processes and why we create the thinking patterns we do, can help us reflect and change how we not only think, but how we talk and view ourselves.

If adults can work to change their outlook and consequently change their lives, so too can young people. I believe that by empowering young people to take responsibility for their well-being and educating them on how our mental and emotional well-being can be managed through a proactive and engaged approach. We can empower a generation to change how they view themselves and instil a strong sense of self-belief.

I have recently been working with a group of second years on this very concept and within a few days of introducing the class to this concept many of them have been giving positive feedback on how they are noticing negative thought patterns and have been able to change them a little.

If this can be achieved in a few days, imagine if children were taught about mental well-being from a young age. The possibility for positive change is endless. This week try to notice any negative thought patterns that you regularly catch yourself thinking. Don’t criticise or judge yourself for thinking that way, but see if you can change the story you tell yourself. You will be surprised at the difference it will make to your well-being!

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

Building resilience builds well-being


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Alan White

Alan White

“When you are going through hell, keep going!” – Winston Churchill.

The above quote, for me, encapsulates the need we all have to build our resilience. Resilience is a mental toughness, it is the ability to bounce back from setbacks in our lives as well as the ability to cope with and overcome challenges we face in our lives. One of the key traits that all successful people have is resilience. A strong belief that comes from within that they have the capacity to overcome obstacles and not only survive setbacks, but also thrive in the face of these challenges.

I am lucky that I have had challenges in my life that I have had to overcome. We all have, in that I am no different to anyone else. However, how we learn resilience is by being allowed the chance to overcome obstacles for ourselves. Sometimes failing, but always being encouraged to get up again. Young people need the opportunity to overcome challenges for themselves. Obviously a parents natural instinct is to protect their child from hurt, however to do this throughout their lives is actually more of a disservice to a young person than actually helping them.

We learn more from failing than we do succeeding. It’s great to succeed at what we do, however in order to gain success, it’s important to first fail. Failure is more challenging. Failure asks us to look at ourselves and assess where we went wrong, what we could do better the next time and how we can perform better.

I remember going out to a school mini company competition a few years back, when a friend of mine suggested that there should be a prize in the competition for the team that failed the best. I remember asking the question, why would a team that failed be rewarded? To which he replied that, if a team fails, but during the interview show that they can see the reasons why they failed and how they could do better in the future, then that’s often worth more than being successful.

This point, well made, has stuck with me over the years and has helped me to take a more pragmatic approach to failure in my own life. There was a time that I took failure very hard, just ask anyone who plays football with me! However I have learned more recently that sometimes not getting what you want can be the best thing for you.

Resilience is also about taking responsibility for our own actions and behaviours. For me it’s an inner honesty. The ability to hold ourselves accountable, not to the standards of others but to our own standards. For our children we must not only instil high standards but the direction through our own example to maintain an integrity through these standards.

I have improved my own resilience by working on my self-talk. This is the internal dialogue we all have in our own minds all day every day. Humans have a natural negativity bias, which is a good thing as it makes us aware of the dangers or potential dangers in our environment and helps us to survive. Unfortunately it also makes us sometimes focus too much on the negative. To build resilience in ourselves and young people we need to encourage positive self-talk as well as nurture the ability to bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks.

To help us to move away from negative to positive self-talk I have found it helpful to become conscious of what “thoughts” actually are. Thoughts are just thoughts; they are not a fact, and the good news is we can not only pick the thoughts that we want, but we can also change our thoughts. When we experience a setback, we can change our thoughts from something like, “this always happens to me, why do I ever bother to do anything”, to “it was tough not getting what I wanted today, but I know I can do better and I will eventually succeed if I keep at it”. I am not trivialising the process of changing our thoughts however. That in itself takes a lot of hard work, but it is worthwhile hard work as it can profoundly change your life for the better.

Teaching our children the concept of self-talk and allowing them to build their own resilience is, for me, one of the best things we could ever do for them as we are teaching them to become strong, independent people who will be able to not only survive in the world but also take it on.

It’s difficult to put into words the sense of achievement that you get when you battle and fight and keep going until you eventually reach your goal. It’s a feeling that has to be experienced to be understood and valued. But anyone who has ever felt like this would want the same thing for their children.

Whenever I am feeling tired, or when things are not going my way and I need to remember my resilience, I always think about a speech in the movie Rocky Balboa. It always gives me hope and encouragement every time I read or watch it. So this week I will leave you with this speech. Why not share your stories of resilience with other people in your life, you never know who might need it!

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep going forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

The Pygmalion effect – how our young people live up (or down) to our expectations


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Alan White

Alan White

In 1964 Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal was given permission to administer a new IQ test to a group of Elementary school students. After administering the test, a group of children were highlighted to the teacher as having great potential to academically flourish over the next year. Sure enough over the following academic year these students made massive improvements in test scores.

At the end of the year the teacher was informed that, Rosenthal had only administered a standard IQ test and the students who were singled out as having potential, were merely picked at random. In fact it was the increased expectations of these students from their teacher that had had an effect on their performance. This became known as the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect.

Young people quickly pick up on our unspoken expectations of them. I can see it every day in my own classroom. Students who are expected to do well often do and students who have picked up the message that they may not do well also live up to that expectation. We tend to label students very quickly. Often by the time they have reached secondary school, students have a “reputation”. An A student, a hard worker, or a lazy student or a trouble maker.

Somewhere along the line young people have been pigeonholed into a certain category of achievement and they begin to believe this themselves. Nobody has probably ever told the child that they have limited expectations of them, but they have subconsciously picked up on these expectations and internalised them deep within themselves. Too often I encounter young people who are defeated before they begin and are obviously bored and disillusioned every day of their lives in school as they don’t ever experience success and achievement, as well as the thrill and confidence these bring with them.

Many of us have experienced what it’s like to feel useless, either in school or in a workplace. To say it’s an unpleasant experience to have to spend most of your days somewhere where you feel unappreciated and undervalued is an understatement. This is happening to young people every day, where getting through the school day is an exercise in doing the bare minimum, clock watching and avoidance. Not a pleasant experience for anyone and one that can have a detrimental effect on mental well-being.

Our expectations of our young people become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe in them, they tend to meet this expectations and of course the opposite is also true. As parents and educators, or anyone who works with young people we must be careful of buying into the “labels” that are placed upon them. Most of us can remember that one adult who believed in us, some of us were lucky and had many people believe in us and this belief was what helped us reach where we are today.

Others are not so lucky and never experience the self confidence that having people believe in them brings. In one of my earlier blogs I wrote about perception and how “your perception of me is a reflection of you”. However it is also true that, “your belief in me is reflected in me”.

For many of us, it’s hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t believe in their child, and I’m not suggesting that anyone would for the most part. However it’s important to remember that young people pick up of even the most subtle hints of doubt, especially during their self-conscious teenage years. Young people pick up on our hidden assumptions so for anyone who either has children work with them or both. It is important to be aware of the subtle messages they are receiving through our expectations either high or low.

We all have different skills and natural abilities, but I strongly believe that all of us can overcome barriers to achievement through self-belief. This self-belief however needs to be reinforced through others belief in us and this will help our young people to persevere through adversity and flourish. This will in turn help build what I will be speaking about in my next blog, Resilience!

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

Sabona, the ancient Zulu wisdom of empathy


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Alan White

Alan White

Sabona, which means “I see you” is how the Zulu tribe say hello! It literally means that “I acknowledge your existence”. This is a powerful way to say hello. It says that I am able to see beyond your behaviour and I acknowledge the person you are behind it. A person is not their behaviour.

Behaviour is how we try to achieve our goals or get want we want. Sometimes we choose positive behaviours to achieve our goals. Such as training hard to be able to run a marathon, or studying hard to do well in exams. Other times we tend to use negative behaviour to try and fulfil our needs, such as sulking when we don’t get what we want or becoming aggressive to try and attempt to intimidate others into doing what we want.

No matter what behaviour we choose though, we are not our behaviour. Yes, our behaviour tells a lot about us but underneath our behaviour there is a person with hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties just like everyone else. One of the most empowering things I have learned over the past number of years is the ability to separate the person from their behaviour.

Very often our goals, or what we want cause conflict in our lives. Firstly they can cause internal conflicts within ourselves when we have two opposing goals. For example, I want to study hard to do well in my exams but I also want to play the sport I love or go out and have fun with friends. This type of conflict can cause us a lot of anxiety throughout our lives. I experience it regularly while trying to do the best I can in my teaching, while developing my next book and maintaining the important relationships in my life.

I also see this conflict in a lot of young people I meet every day. At least I have (now) experienced enough conflict to know that if I break down my goals into manageable parts that I will eventually get there. However for young people trying to cope with the demands of school, family, friends and hobbies, this can be overwhelming and cause a lot of suffering.

As part of any mental health programme in schools I believe that managing expectations of self and others must be a key part of the curriculum. We need to teach our young people how to survive in an ever more challenging world and allow them time to figure out for themselves, with guidance, how to manage all of the demands that are placed on their young shoulders.

We tend to overestimate what we can achieve in a day but underestimate what we can achieve in a week, a month or a year. And this inability to see how much we can do, if only we give ourselves enough time, is a key driver of stress in all our lives.

This brings me on to the second type of conflict we often experience and that is conflict with others. A quote I keep coming back to when writing about mental wellbeing is one of Dr William Glassers. “Good relationships are the core of mental health and happiness”. When we are in conflict, our relationships suffer and we often feel more anxious than usual. Try to remember the last time you had an argument with someone. Even if you feel you “won” the argument you probably didn’t feel good afterwards.

Conflict with others often occurs when two conflicting goals meet and the different parties involved in the conflict choose opposing behaviours to achieve the goal. For example, a parent wants a child to stay in and study, but the child want to go out and have fun. Or in a relationship one partner wants to do one thing and the other something else. The differing behaviours in such cases often clash and inevitably conflict occurs.

In this case we need to negotiate a compromise as the core relationship is the most important thing. To be able to do this we need to develop our empathy skills. This is the ability to see things from the other person’s perspective. This is not always easy and sometimes we will be able to do this and other times we won’t, but the important thing is that we try.

So, separating a person’s behaviour from the person is key to developing our wellbeing skills, because if we can do this we can understand the motivation behind someone’s behaviour and become more empathetic as to why they are behaving the way they are.

An interesting question to ask yourself when you see someone behaving in a certain way is to ask yourself, what are they trying to achieve or what do they want. Practice empathising with the person and see beyond the behaviour and it will benefit both your own and the important people in your life. And remember, Sabona, I acknowledge your existence, I see you as the person you are, not the behaviour you are choosing.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

What lies beyond your comfort zone?


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Alan White

Alan White

Last Saturday I was lucky enough to be selected to showcase the work I have done over the past number of years on Mental Health at Féilte. This event is held every year in the RDS in Dublin and is organised by the Teaching Council. It is the largest celebration (Féilte means celebration, and yes I had to look it up!) conference on mental health within education.

This wasn’t the first time I have applied to showcase at this event. I applied a couple of years ago also without success. To be invited to such an event is one thing but the response I received from other teachers was inspiring, and very different from the reactions I was getting when I first starting writing mental health books four years ago.

From the moment I set up my stand at 8:30 in the morning to 5:00 that evening I was constantly talking to other interested teachers about my books and how to implement them in schools. It was amazing to receive such a response. Everyone I spoke to on the day was eager to begin introducing well-being education into their school.

Driving back to Cork exhausted but happy, I began to reflect on my journey over the past number of years and how it led me to this point. When I decided to begin training in the area of mental health and well-being I was extremely insecure and nervous. Questions raced through my mind. What would people think? How would I overcome the challenges that would inevitably come my way? I had to quickly learn how to handle negative perceptions and reactions to what I was doing. I had to learn to become blinkered to certain opinions and trust that what I was doing was the right thing for me.

I really had to step out of my comfort zone and learn to live in the dichotomy of becoming comfortable outside of it. However as soon as I made this conscious decision, things began to slowly change for me. I began to meet a lot of people who encouraged me and what I was doing. I began to get feedback on how my work was not only useful, but also was helping people. This was a great motivator and helped me to not only step further out of my comfort zone, but would eventually lead me to dive head first, deep into this zone. And that is when things that I thought were never possible began to happen. I was published, I was invited to speak about my work at various events, I am even writing blogs every 2 weeks.

For all this I am extremely grateful, but it would have never happened if I hadn’t decided that I could step out of my comfort zone, and believe me, I was very comfortable in there! Now I know that it’s a place that I will never return to. Despite the days where I feel I am not making progress or things are not moving fast enough in mental health education for my liking. However when I look at the difference in perception on the topic over the past number of years, my frustration quickly turns to motivation again.

So trust me, life really does begin outside of your comfort zone, so if you have a niggling ambition and you are afraid to go for it, for whatever reason. Stretch yourself and try to make the decision to break out of your comfort zone and go for it. I promise that if you give it everything you have, if you work hard for it, believe in yourself and are willing to sacrifice for it, you will never look back and redefine what you thought was possible for your life.

A Eulogy for Stigma – Why we must get well-being on the agenda in schools


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Alan White

Alan White

Born out of fear and lack of understanding, stigma has marginalised those with mental health difficulties for centuries. Very often anyone suffering with mental illness were seen as outcasts and were viewed with suspicion and fear, even by loved ones.

Stigma develops when we don’t understand something. As human beings, when we can’t explain something, we begin to fear it and often try to bury it or treat it with suspicion. This suspicion or fear can often presents itself as indifference, silent suffering and deep emotional pain. Often it causes those who suffer to bury their pain deep inside, only to have it return with a vengeance and cause them to suffer even more. At its worst it can take away our loved ones and destroy families and communities.

To end a stigma that is so deeply rooted in society is not an easy task, it may take a generation to make significant progress. That is why I believe in the importance of bringing mental well-being education to both primary and secondary schools. If we can teach young people from an early age about positive mental well-being, we have a chance to change the way we look at mental well-being.

Key to this is changing the way we look at mental health. I try to refer to this as mental-well-being or mental fitness. Over time the term mental health has become the victim of dogmatic thinking that has almost vilified the term. If we think about the term mental health rationally, we have to ask ourselves, why, when we think of mental health, do we automatically think of mental illness? Are they the same thing?

The point I always make when discussing well-being is that, when we think of physical health, we don’t think about illness. Instead we think about being fit, healthy, looking good, having lots of energy and motivation to do things and be with people. So why then would we think of mental illness when we think of mental health? When we are mentally healthy, just like when we are physically healthy we feel good about ourselves, we want to do things and we want to be with others. We are proud of ourselves and will tell all our friends when we are physically healthy. However when it comes to well-being we are afraid to mention the topic out of fear of the reaction we will get.

By speaking about mental health or mental fitness in the same way we speak about physical fitness, we will begin to normalise what was once feared and even begin to allow people to be proud of the fact that they take care of their emotional well-being. Much like we need our five a day to keep healthy, (I am not the best at this myself) we also need to do things daily to care for our mental and emotional needs.

Positive mental health education is key to changing how we view this issue. The benefits of learning key skills to take care of yourself are massive. Not only will learning these skills bring about personal growth, it will also have benefits that reach far beyond the individual. If we help people to become mentally healthy, this will have an effect on families and communities. As these groups thrive, the wider population will begin to thrive and this can only have a positive effect on our society and our economy.

If our government realised the powerful impact this could have on our country both for individuals and the economy there would be no question of immediate investment. However for now it is up to us to take this on for ourselves. I would urge anyone to learn as much as they can about positive mental well-being as well as encourage the important people in their lives to do the same, as the effects that it can have on people’s lives is quite simply amazing.

There are lots of little things that you can do to help boost positive mental health, like,
• Getting together with friends.
• Doing a hobby that you love.
• Showing gratitude for the good thing you have in your life.
• Random acts of kindness.

These are just a small sample of the things you can do. Why not take the time to try one today and see how much better you feel afterwards. If you build some of these into your daily life, you will see a huge improvement in your overall well-being. So as well as your five a day, make time for your one a day. The one thing you do to take care of you.

By taking care of ourselves and being proud to do so, we can begin to end this stigma that has caused so much suffering and hurt! We need to move to a holistic approach to both education and how we live our lives. We can’t pour from an empty cup, so taking care of yourself is not the selfish act that we often perceive it to be. In fact by taking care of ourselves we are much more like to be able to help others. Why not share your tips on the one thing you do to take care of you!

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description