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London schoolchildren tackle mental health through special theatre project

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Pupils from 12 schools in the capital unveil their work at Open Minds 

‘What happens to the brain when you feel a bit down?’ and ‘How does your brain recharge when you sleep?’ These were just some of the many questions being addressed by 250 schoolchildren from across London, who have been working with educational theatre company M-SET and students from the University of East London (UEL) on Open Minds, a special immersive theatre project about mental health.
The pupils from 12 schools in the capital unveiled their work on the project on Friday 12 July at UEL’s University Square campus, when they also fired a host of questions about the workings of the mind and the brain at a panel of top experts.

The event enabled the pupils, aged between 8 and 18, to showcase the work they have been doing over the past few months to learn about the brain and mental health. They demonstrated some of the exercises and creative tasks they have tackled, to help them to see how the brain works and affects emotions and wellbeing. With the help of the ‘ambassadors’ from UEL, the pupils demonstrated some of their work on Friday and showed off an art installation they created.

The children also had a chance to put their questions to eminent experts including Dr Maria Castro Romero - Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at UEL, Dr. Trudi Edginton Clinical Psychologist from City, University of London and GP Dr Ashleigh McDonald.

Josh Foster, aged 20, a drama and applied theatre student at UEL, was one of the key UEL students to have been involved with the project, working with all 12 schools to produce a vast range of drama, art and media activities.

“I have loved working with all the children on this amazing project,” he said. “We have been enacting a number of scenarios in role play, such as helping to brighten up the mood of a made up character to show ways to improve mental health. The pupils also loved playing with elastic materials to demonstrate the gaps between neurons in the brain. It’s been a truly magical experience and it’s made me think that I would like to go on to teach children with special needs once I graduate from UEL.”

Paula Manning, Artistic Director of M-SET who has masterminded the project through her educational theatre company, said, “The event has been a great success and I am overwhelmed by how much the children have learned and experienced. The UEL student ambassadors and Applied Theatre and Performance students have been a brilliant support for our work and wonderful role models for the pupils. I think they have benefited themselves too. I have seen them develop facilitation and communication skills and grow in confidence.” 

Paula explained how the project cultivated young people's understanding of brain activity and mental health. “Our approach has been practical rather than therapeutic, using the arts to raise awareness of mental health issues through immersive theatre installations at UEL and sessions in schools involving film making, drama, music and art. Pupils have kept creative journals about their emotions and the practical steps they are taking to look after their mental health, including maintaining relationships, asking for help, nutrition, exercise, sleeping well and doing something creative.

“We hope that we have also challenged people’s misconceptions about mental health and disability, using the arts as a learning tool. This has been invaluable in exploring and celebrating differences in society and how conditions such as autism and cerebral palsy affect the human brain and our emotional wellbeing,” Paula added.

Clinical community psychology student Farwwa Raj Dheeir, who is studying for her Master’s degree at UEL and has experience of working with children with special needs, also took part as an ambassador for the project.

“This project has been amazing,” Farwwa said. “It has been such fun working with the children and watching them understand and realise how, through drama and art work, they can better understand and improve their mental health.”

Students from the 12 London schools have made a short film about mental health and emotional wellbeing. This is designed to be a learning tool for other young people in London.
Throughout the project, pupils have worked with GPs, neuroscientists from City University of London, Goldsmiths, Birkbeck and UCL, in addition to UEL. Some of the pupils’ artwork from the project is also due to be exhibited at the Science Museum shortly.

The 12 schools taking part were:
Mayflower Primary School - Tower Hamlets
Lansbury Lawrence Primary School - Tower Hamlets
Queensmill School – Hammersmith and Fulham
Fulham Primary School - Hammersmith and Fulham
Fulham College Boys' School - Hammersmith and Fulham
Fulham Cross Girls’ School - Hammersmith and Fulham
The Vale School - Haringey
Corbets Tey School - Havering
Marner Primary School - Tower Hamlets
Phoenix Primary School - Tower Hamlets