The benefits of boarding for students’ mental health

Amanda Horlick-Coutts, school counsellor at Bedford School, explains why boarding provides a unique support network for teenagers at a time in their life when their mental health can be fragile

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on mental health. But while an increased number of adults have reported that pandemic-related fears and stress have impaired their mental health, young people have been particularly susceptible.

Already vulnerable to a rollercoaster of hormones, emotional and physical changes, teenagers have also battled their way through school closures and distance learning, with the inability to interact closely with friends causing them huge amounts of loneliness.

They have been stripped of so much, and a key part of what has been taken is human interaction and socialisation. On top of this, many have struggled with a lack of exercise and access to the extracurricular activities they might be used to.

Historically, these have often been seen as extras to education by parents but, while watching their children suffering at home, many are starting to appreciate that they are actually an important part of a well-rounded upbringing. It is this realisation which has seen applications to boarding schools increase this year – recognition that young people need so much more than lessons and textbooks in order to thrive.

The boarding experience

The boarding experience is unlike any other type of education. Not only do those who board have access to the fullest academic learning provision and an unrivalled range of opportunities which include societies, sport, music, drama, design technology and art projects, but they also have the experience of living with others their own age and the support of a wide range of adults to help them outside school hours.

On top of this, the skills that pupils of boarding schools learn make them more resilient and independent. Boarding schools are, by nature, organised and structured environments. This helps pupils to be productive and constructive, and provides a sense of belonging and security.

Boarding schools also give each child an extended family. After all, housemasters and mistresses really get to know the children and, between them, have a huge range of experience of the problems they can face – including issues with mental health.

Getting support

Here at Bedford School we work hard to establish a culture that maximises the chances of identifying problems but also minimises the chances of them arising. We do this by covering mental health and wellbeing on the curriculum, not just in PSHE but also in areas like drama and in sport, where fair play and sportsmanship are seen to be as valuable as taking home the trophy.

We also believe mental health is more than just teaching behaviour – it’s living it. This is why we have a mentorship programme where younger pupils learn to adopt the ethos of the school by following the lead of the older pupils. Our senior students as well as our teachers are trained to offer that support – quashing the stereotype of the stiff upper lip that’s plagued British educational establishments for years.

The black dog

We know that comfort can come from many places, but we are also aware that some boys find it harder to voice their feelings than others. This is where the black dog comes in.

Here at Bedford School, the black dog – traditionally used to symbolise depression – actually refers to Dougie, Barney or Cooper. These are the names of a number of canines – mainly black Labradors – that live in the boarding houses with the boys. These animals are part and parcel of boarding school life for a number of reasons.

They provide immediate companionship to new starters, they add that family feel to the boarding houses, they are a comfort to those who have left beloved pets at home and, most importantly, pets can reduce stress, anxiety and depression.

Dougie, one of Bedford School’s dogs


A great start in life

We are confident that any boy leaving Bedford will do so with a superb education under his belt, having had access to many wonderful opportunities. But we also want him to look back on his schooling with fondness.

After all, education is about much more than academic lessons and qualifications. Our whole school ethos is set up to provide boys with a holistic education, living by our core values, integrity, responsibility, curiosity, endeavour, and of course, kindness, which underpins everything we do.

So, as well as good grades and an aptitude for sport or art or drama or dog training (our black dogs get plenty of attention), we also live by a sentient best summed up in the words of headmaster James Hodgson: “We look to devote our time to ensuring that our boys are happy and successful, in that order.”

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