Health in Mind: How one Portsmouth company is helping schoolchildren across the UK with their mental health

TEACHING children how to look after their mental wellbeing is now more important than ever before, experts behind an ‘innovative’ support system have said.

Friday, 17th May 2019, 10:27 am
Roy McGunigall and Gary Siva from Zumos Picture: Sarah Standing (160918-4749)

With rates of diagnosed mental health conditions rising in children, one Portsmouth company is looking to provide free support for under 18-year-olds nationwide.

Online service Zumos was first founded several years ago by Southsea physical therapist Gary Siva hoping to prevent people reaching a ‘crisis stage’.

Now the chief executive of the rapidly expanding programme Gary, along with his team, has managed to bring their support system to more than 70,000 children in 200 schools.

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Headteacher Paul Marshallsay from the Portsmouth High School prep school that has rolled out the Zumos programme. Pic from Portsmouth High School

Zumos is an online platform that can be accessed for free by children at school or from home. Each child has a unique login to allow them to input how they are feeling every day. It provides a new ‘how to stay happy’ tip daily as well as information on mental health and where to get help.

Gary said: ‘The idea came about a very long time ago. I found in my job that people always sought advice when in a crisis situation rather than as a preventative.

‘It’s like how people only going to hospital after they’ve had a heart attack or a breakdown, and not for any of the symptoms leading up to it.

‘So we collaborated with mental health services, steering groups and the local government among others. It became part of the Wolverhampton HeadStart project that was given £75m from the lottery.

‘Essentially we wanted to build a tool on how to build resilience and confidence. It’s a unique system.’

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Gary’s colleague, engagement manager Rob Collins, believed the system was working well in schools. ‘There are quite a number of schools using the system and we’ve seen usage go up massively in the past couple of years - by about 200 per cent’, he said.

‘What’s important is it is an innovative approach to mental health support. When I was training to be a counsellor it was all about responding to crisis, when things are already broken. But there’s been a whole journey to get that person there.

‘And it works at a pre-disclosure level. It’s not like counselling, it’s about tracking how they’re feeling, learning ways to look after themselves and teaching them that it’s good to talk to each other.

‘Resilience and wellbeing are so important. Doctors and medical support is costly and there’s not a lot out there.

‘The most amazing feedback comes from teachers saying they’ve seen a change in the students who use Zumos regularly.

‘What’s really interesting is roughly 60 per cent of the users are boys, compared to 40 per cent of girls. I found that quite shocking because usually more females access mental health support. This shows that it works and works well with a massively difficult target group.

‘The majority of mental health issues start before someone is 18 and children are being diagnosed at younger and younger ages.’  

Currently two schools in Portsmouth are signed up, or in the process of signing up, to Zumos - Miltoncross Academy and Portsmouth High School.

But it is Gary’s ambition to see it in every school nationwide.

‘At the moment schools either pay for Zumos or they get outside funding for it,’ he said.

‘We did manage to give to some schools for free to begin with. But unfortunately we have running costs. We do keep them down but I know there are about 1,500 schools that want to have access to the system.

‘To really deliver a measurable change it needs to go to lots of schools.’

The team have a £1m fundraising goal they want to reach to be able to supply Zumos to as many schools as possible. They have applied for funding from Public Health England in the past but are hoping for donations from past school students to help them reach their target.

Gary added: ‘We also have an adult version ready to go. Hopefully that will be running soon.

‘And we pledge that for every adult who signs up we will give a child free access.’


Zumos in action at Portsmouth High School

THE head of Portsmouth High School’s prep school oversaw the roll out of Zumos for his students earlier this year.

Paul Marshallsay, who has worked at the private school for eight years, was impressed with the results. ‘It looks interesting and engaging for the children,’ he said.

‘I think children are under more pressure than they have ever been before but I think we alleviate that at our school a lot. We don’t do SATs exams because we don’t have to. We play down the importance of exams - we know they are still important but we put them into perspective.

‘It’s important to link mental health and physical health. When we launched Zumos and showed it to the girls for the first time the discussion was around the link between them and how they are different but also how they do cross over.

‘I’ve been a teacher for 20 years. Early in my teaching career there was little awareness from schools and much more of a "get on with it attitude." Now there’s an awareness that mental health is a thing and it’s not just children being difficult.

‘Even with younger children now there’s an understanding of how we feel the way we feel, how to interact with other people and how people are different from each other.

‘The children have now all got their Zumos log-ins and the teachers show them the ‘how to be happy’ videos. There is also an online worry box where they can write anything they are anxious about which the teacher will see.’

Zumos will be introduced in the senior school and sixth form later.

An NHS England survey on the mental health of children and young people in England in 2017 revealed that:

- One in eight five to 19-year-olds had at least one mental disorder

- 5.5 per cent of two to four-year-old children experienced a mental disorder, compared to 16.9 per cent of 17 to 19-year-olds

- In 1999 9.7 per cent of five to 15-year-olds had a mental disorder. This went up to 10.1 per cent in 2004 and 11.2 per cent in 2017