With the amount of young people affected by mental health issues rising each year, we need organisations like the Self-Esteem Team more than ever. Helmed by three strong women – Nadia Mendoza, Grace Barrett and founder Natasha Devon – each with past experiences of mental health struggles, the Self-Esteem team works with young people, schools, colleges and universities with the aim to de-stigmatise mental health and challenge stereotypes.
We chatted to Nadia to learn more about the Self-Esteem girls’ mission.
What made you start The Self-Esteem Team?
When Tash recovered from an eight-year battle with bulimia, she was determined that no other young person should have to go through what she did. She began going into schools, researching, speaking to students, creating a lesson plan that would be not only fresh and relevant, but universal. There was a clear hunger for it and soon Tash was in such high-demand that she could no longer do it alone, so recruited me (Nadz) and Grace. The three of us now travel the UK and have worked with 60,000+ teens in more than 250 schools. With feedback essential to our growth, we soon evolved from the original body image class by creating a range of lessons from Understanding Self-Harm to How To Deal With Exam Stress to Healthy Ways To Handle Difficult Feelings.
Do you think that people who struggle with self-esteem and mental health problems have decent enough care?
It really is a case by case basis. We hear uplifting stories from people who credit anti-depressants or therapy for saving their lives, yet also horror stories where teens are turned away from CAMHS [Child Adolescent Mental Health Services] as they’re ‘not sick enough’; they end up going away, getting worse, then making suicide attempts before they can be treated. We believe in prevention over cure, meaning if we teach children mental wellbeing as well as academia and sport, then we reduce the risk of problems further down the line. We are currently working with the government in a bid to revolutionise the education system so that mental wellbeing is on the curriculum.
With all the pressure from celebrities and social media to look perfect, do you think this is causing more harm than good with younger children and adults?
Celebs and social media definitely play a role in how we view ourselves, especially with the use of apps like 365 which people use to edit their photos before posting to smooth their skin, widen their eyes, brighten their teeth. It takes only a nanosecond to view a picture online, but that one photo could have taken hours to master, as Instagram model Essena O’Neill recently revealed. The damage begins to really affect our self-esteem when we start comparing our everyday life to somebody else’s unrealistic airbrushed showreel. Even without the use of an app or filter to alter appearance, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that celebs have financial incentives to look the way they do, personal trainers, personal nutritionists, personal chefs, nannies to look after the kids, an entourage, make-up artists… it is impossible to live up to the expectations of ‘having it all’ projected to us via cyberspace.
The number of children and young adults with self-esteem issues seems to get higher each year. What do you think is the reason for this?
There is no one culprit to point the finger at which makes self-esteem issues harder to ‘fix’. It is a cumulative effect of anything and everything from broken homes to parents working long hours; sexting to bullying; the housing crisis making it a terrifying prospect to ever leave home; being constantly stimulated by smartphones so that we never having a time-out or moment to just chill; rigorous exam testing from a young age; the constant messages we are bombarded with every week from advertisers that we’re not at our tightest/whitest/lightest.
I read on your website that you do presentations for 13-year-olds and aim to start running them for 10-year-olds. Why did you choose to do presentations for these age ranges in particular?
We work closely with ages 14-18, the reason being that this is when students are under immense pressure to get the right grades for GSCE and A-level, as well as determining their future by trying to get into university. It is an absolutely crucial time for them to have a sound mental wellbeing to cope with the elevated stress. We are now researching our primary school programme due to high demand as Year 5 and 6 students are showing signs of mental health problems (if not younger). A report in March revealed that 1 in 5 girls of primary age are now on a diet. The issue with poor body image is that it doesn’t just start and end with looking in the mirror, appearance anxiety prevents kids them from raising their hand in class or taking part in school sports. Obviously unaddressed and left to fester, this could prevent someone further down the line from going for a job interview or fulfilling their potential.
I also read that you do workshops. What sort of things do you focus on in those workshops?
We always work very closely with the teachers to tailor classes to their students, so if a particular school called us to say they had a self-harm epidemic, we would focus on that topic. If they requested a more generic lesson about body image in the media, we can do that too. The idea is that whether a student is affected by an issue or not, everyone can take at least one thing away from our lessons. We are continuing to broaden what we offer, especially now we have introduced Associate Lecturers. These are essentially extended members of Team SET who teach specialised subjects; Martin Daubney for example delivers a brilliant lesson called Porn On The Brain.
Is there anything else you hope to do and achieve with The Self-Esteem Team in the coming months?
We are now collaborating with several experts (one brilliant psychologist in particular, Martin Seager, who worked in the NHS for 30 years) to finesse our Switch On The Light lesson, a mental health class solely for boys. And we are about to start working on our Teacher’s Toolkit, which will involve us curating a menu of tasks, challenges and games which can be introduced in schools to help students build a strong mental health. We also hope to continue taking our message from inside the classroom and out into the world by getting as much positivity online as possible, so check us out at @_selfesteemteam.
What can anyone else do if they think that someone is suffering with any self esteem or mental health issues?
We have a whole section dedicated to this in our book The Self-Esteem Team’s Guide to Sex, Drugs & WTFs?!! We believe a good way to help is to strip away the behaviour (such as drugs, self-harm, eating disorders) and talk about the actual emotion behind it, as that is the root of the negative feelings. Also, no matter how much we want to rescue someone who is suffering, often we simply don’t have the right knowledge to help them. Telling a friend or family member that you will be there for them and listen to them vent or cry is obviously a brilliant thing to do, but directing them to a GP, favourite teacher, helpline or therapist is ideal.