Sally-Anne Huang, Headmistress of James Allen’s Girls’ School, on her highly successful social media campaign #headteachersreallife

It’s impossible to listen to the news these days without hearing stories about the mental health crisis amongst young people. Schools, universities and doctors are all acutely aware of the increased number of reported cases and are also keen to explain the cause of the problem. It seems that social media is an easy target. A relatively new phenomenon, it can often be blamed for all sorts of evil. From my own perspective, I think social media can do a lot of good.  It helps people to connect, stay in touch and share ideas.  Many of the teenagers I know use it to sustain friendships and plan fuller lives.  I do tend to think the line of ‘total evil which should be banned’ has Luddite overtones and merely indicates the failure of one generation to understand another.

However, I do recognise we all have a  tendency to portray only the best of ourselves online. For teenagers, this pressure seems much worse.  In a world of filters, they pick only the very best images of themselves to post – often counting the likes and being offended if people don’t comment positively or follow back.  Any one individual participating is then on the receiving end of other carefully curated accounts where everyone is seen in the right light from the right angle and is having a great time with their many friends. Real life, as it is really lived, with grey clouds, slight discomfort and bad hair days, never gets a look in.  It stands to reason that, if you are forever pursuing a false, edited ideal, mental health and real happiness will often be sacrificed. 

We get told that teachers are role models to the young people in our schools.  I’m not sure that extends entirely to headteachers but, in any case, I have tried to do things differently for a little while.  For the past few months I have been posting with the tag #headteachersreallife, photos and comments which reveal the less than perfect moments in my day.  Don’t worry – I haven’t gone for the really tragic or depressing, but you might have seen untidy desks, missed trains and sad looking lunches. I am astounded by the response, and have enjoyed seeing other heads from across the country embracing the hashtag. Tweets have ranged from one head being stung on the foot by a bee in his sock to another admitting to insomnia before the start of term. The response from the national media has also been overwhelming, and the campaign has seen coverage in the Evening Standard, iNews and the BBC. 

The girls who have spoken about the hashtag say that they have enjoyed seeing aspects of my daily life and found comfort in the fact that I have mishaps too.  They do feel that it makes me seem more approachable. Similarly, I take comfort in the tweets from other heads who also admit to having bad days.

There’s always the pressure when you’re growing up to think that you’re the only one that has any problems. It takes confidence to admit that not everything in your day has gone as you might have liked it to go. For me, there’s great mental health in being able to say that and in being able to laugh at it. If we believe that striving for an impossibly perfect ideal to match those edited online lives is making our students ill, then we should at least offer a more realistic alternative.