The DfE’s ex-mental health champion: ‘Ministers may have dumped me, but my campaign will go on’

Writing exclusively for the TES, Natasha Devon explains why she’s parted company with the Conservative government

As of this week, I am no longer the DfE’s Mental Health Champion for Schools. The Department of Health is following through a recommendation to create a contracted, paid role of mental health champion working across all departments, which effectively renders my role specifically for young people redundant.

I am very grateful to the Department for Education for giving me a platform over the past nine months, which allowed me to bring direct to the government the concerns and experiences of thousands of young people and hundreds of teachers I’ve worked with since 2008, the only group of people I truly consider myself answerable to. I am also immensely grateful to Sam Gyimah for giving me his ear on so many occasions – the minister for education and childcare is, I honestly believe, a well-intentioned force for good.

My sincere thanks also to everyone who sent me their books, invited me into their schools, charity headquarters and to hear some of the world’s most prominent experts at their conferences. I can’t tell you how valuable the knowledge you have given me has been in enhancing my own understanding.

I am also immensely grateful to TES, who have confirmed that they will allow me to carry on writing for them (“Yippee,” I hear you cry!).

I wish the DfE all the very best in implementing their peer-to-peer mentoring schemes in schools and the joint training between CAHMS and teachers, both designed to tackle mental health issues via the education sector. I also wish whoever will take on the role of paid, cross-department mental health champion all the very best of luck – it goes without saying that your position and how you choose to handle it will be crucial in shaping all of our futures.

When I was first approached by the DfE to be their mental health champion in August 2015, I enquired as to whether there would be any payment for the role. I was told that the position was unpaid because it was important that I remained impartial, that I was able to give an objective, independent view: one unencumbered by party politics.

And so, reader, I did. Indeed, if I hadn’t been allowed to, I wouldn’t have taken the position. I carried on in precisely the same spirit that I had as a campaigner. I called it as I saw it, informed by what I was seeing and hearing in schools. Sometimes my views changed slightly, because the world changed slightly, but they were always motivated by wanting young people to have the best – the best education, the best mental health, the best chance to fulfil their potential.

Among many other things, I said that I believed in making PSHE mandatory and thereby given its own budget and specialised teachers. I reported back on what children and their teachers had told me about the increasingly competitive, fraught and test-driven nature of education fuelling stress and anxiety and thereby having a detrimental effect on their mental health. I challenged minister for health Alistair Burt, saying that while it was fantastic that the world of education was sitting up and paying attention on issues relating to mental health, it would all be rendered ultimately fruitless unless CAHMS services were considerably improved.

Above all, I kept repeating what I still consider to be the most crucial point of all during discussions at government level and that is that the mental health of teachers is suffering. We cannot delegate responsibility for the mental health care of an entire generation to a group of people who aren’t being looked after themselves. I’m not sure that I was ever really heard on this point.

I wrote about all of this for TES and the stories were subsequently picked up all over the media. Jeremy Corbyn tweeted about me. I was politely bollocked on more than one occasion by civil servants for being “negative” about the government.

Like all dysfunctional relationships, the one between me and the Tory party ended with a dumping. It’s not me, the DfE assure me, it’s them. Their needs have changed. I was their tempestuous fling and now they’re looking to settle down with someone who is a bit less high maintenance.

As for the future, I have a few options. The DfE have extended an opportunity for me to continue working with them but not in an officially titled capacity. Luciana Berger, shadow minister for mental health – and all-round good egg – has invited me and my team to share our expertise with the Labour Party, where she thinks they might be more appreciated. While I decide, I’ll carry on doing what I’ve always done – going in to approximately three schools per week with the Self-Esteem Team, helping young people navigate this thing that we call life.

One thing is for sure: I’ll always campaign for as long as unfairness exists – my voice can’t be silenced that easily. Please do keep inviting me into your schools, to your charities and to your conferences. I might not be the DfE’s champion anymore, but I still want to be yours.

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