Blog: Can storytelling improve children’s mental health?

Published: 7 Sep 2020

Author: Olivia Richards
Blog: Can storytelling improve children’s mental health?

September 7 is Youth Mental Health Awareness Day – and this year it is needed more than ever.

"During my travels, I witnessed the power of stories to change people’s outlooks in even the most challenging circumstances" - Olivia Richards, Fellow

The Office for National Statistics estimates that one in eight young people have a clinically diagnosed mental disorder. In addition, the National Children’s Bureau has reported that 90% of head teachers have seen an increase in mental health problems amongst students. Covid-19 has exacerbated this situation and interviews carried out by Young Minds, with young people who have existing mental health conditions, revealed that 80% felt that Covid-19 had caused their mental health to deteriorate.

One approach that has been successful in supporting young people's mental health is teaching them wellbeing skills and strategies. Teaching these skills has been linked to improved life outcomes and increased academic grades. However, in research undertaken by the Child Poverty Commission, teachers admitted that the pressure for students to achieve academic results often meant that there wasn’t enough time to teach wellbeing skills. The good news is that this year the Government is making teaching about mental health and wellbeing a statutory subject. However, teachers are still concerned about when they will have the time to teach these skills - and how to do this effectively.

As an English teacher, I see the potential to integrate wellbeing into English lessons. This is because reading and writing have always been ways in which I have supported my own mental health, so I know that English provides many opportunities to support wellbeing. After a lot of research, I created The Story Project, a social enterprise that provides teachers with a carefully curated library of popular fiction stories that include characters experiencing a range of wellbeing issues. The Story Project also provides teachers with training and lesson plans, which give them clear guidance on how to bring out the academic and emotional lessons from these stories and ensure that teachers cover all the statutory expectations.

The Story Project was greatly influenced by my Churchill Fellowship. In 2016, WCMT in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation awarded me a grant to visit 13 different programmes and experts across the USA and Canada, all of whom were using stories to support young people's mental health. During my travels, I witnessed the power of stories to change people’s outlooks in even the most challenging circumstances, such as prisons and homeless shelters.

Some of these programmes, such as the 4R’s in New York and Collaborative Classrooms in California, were working in schools and gave me practical ideas that helped me to start The Story Project. On my return to the UK, I started trialling The Story Project at St Paul's Primary School in Addlestone, and saw key indicators of improvements in my students’ wellbeing and literacy.

This encouraged me to extend the project. With funding from The Shine Trust, I have been able to create a website with hundreds of resources for primary and secondary schools. I have had a lot of interest from schools which would like to trial the resources, and I will be delivering training at a further 40 schools in the coming academic year. I have also received a Farmington Scholarship from Oxford University, which will help me to measure the impact of these trials. 

Therefore, despite the challenging circumstances facing young people on this Youth Mental Health Awareness Day, I am hopeful that this year will be a catalyst for real change, and I am pleased that The Story Project can help provide schools with an effective way to support their students. I am also grateful to WCMT and the Mental Health Foundation for helping to inspire and guide this work.

Olivia’s Fellowship findings featured in our ‘Growing up and growing old’ briefing paper and podcast series, which were recently published summarising the findings of our three-year mental health category in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation.

To find out more about The Story Project please visit www.story-project.co.uk or email [email protected].

View Olivia's profile 

Sign up to blog alerts 

Fellows' activities on Covid-19

Covid-19 Action Plan

Donate to our Covid-19 Action Fund