Trailblazing Highgate schoolgirls to join Emma Thompson and academics at Highgate School mental health conference

Two schoolgirls campaigning to get mental illness onto the ­national curriculum will speak alongside eminent academics and Hollywood actress Emma Thompson at a trailblazing mental health conference.

Friends Amber Van Dam and Sophia Parvizi-Wayne, both 17-year-old pupils at Highgate School, in North Road, Highgate Village, are on a crusade to tackle the growing number of teenagers who suffer eating disorders after experiencing first-hand how mental health issues can affect young people’s lives.

Together they will speak to hundreds of parents about the ways in which adults can lend support to a young person struggling with mental health at school’s inaugural mental health conference on Saturday.

Eating disorder

Sophia, of Bishopswood Road, Highgate, lost three stone in just over a year while suffering from an eating disorder, and will draw on her personal journey to recovery in her talk.

She said: “Things like depression, schizophrenia, anxiety are diseases and need to be regarded like cancer or a broken leg.

“We don’t want to keep droning on about our experiences, we wanted to do something more positive.

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“We thought that going through it all might not help people, but knowing someone has come out of it could be stronger.”

Amber, of West Hampstead, will use her experience of supporting Sophia in her talk. She said: “It’s really important that children have their say in mental health.

“The main message we want to send out is, be an ear to listen, be there for the pupils to help them through their problems.

“A lot of parents think it might be normal teenage behaviour, which it could be, but there’s a difference between that behaviour and what could be a mental health struggle. It’s a fine line.”

One in ten aged 16 and under has a mental health problem in the UK, with nearly 80,000 young people suffering from depression.

At the conference, called A Beginner’s Guide to Self-esteem, Sanity and the Adolescent Years, headteacher Adam Pettitt will propose a ban on technology in children’s bedrooms as part of a “five-a-day” approach to mental health.

Using the government’s target for fruit and vegetable consumption as inspiration, he will suggest that families adopt strict routines where they revert to traditional activities like reading and board games in favour of films, video games and television.

Mr Pettitt said: “It’s important to understand the building blocks of mental health, and understand what makes good mental health. ‘How does good mental health start?’ This question is made more acute by the development of social media. Children come home from school and still have access to their mobile phones where there are a number of different pressures.”

Speakers will include a University of Oxford professor and a clinical psychologist, and the event will be chaired by West Hampstead actress Emma Thompson, who has often spoken out about her own struggles with depression.