COMMENT: Should Mental Health Be Taught in Schools?

In support of Mental Health Awareness Week (8 – 14 May), we discuss the importance of mental health education in schools.

Schools are keen to reinforce the negative physical impacts of habits such as smoking and drinking. There’s always a conversation between teacher and pupil warning of the dangers of playing by train tracks, speaking to strangers and sharing personal information online. Without a doubt, these are necessary conversations to have.

Mental health plays a part in everyone’s lives. Be it through one’s own suffering or the mental health issues faced by loved ones, we will all experience the negative impact that such issues can have. Mental health is not discriminatory; those affected can be of any religion, gender, race, sexual orientation or age.

The question must then be asked, why does mental health not have a prominent place in the national curriculum? If physical health issues and dangers are tackled so openly and are regarded as of high importance, why would there then be such a lack of teaching and support for mental health issues?

YoungMinds, the UK’s leading mental health charity for children and young people, state that in every classroom at least 3 children are suffering from a mental health issue (i). In addition, a 2014 NHS report found that there had been a 70% rise in 10-14 year olds admitted to A & E for self-harm related reasons in the preceding 2 years (ii).

The lack of teaching is an issue in itself. Young people continue to feel alienated from their peers, receive little effective support from their teachers and tutors (who often don’t receive sufficient training) and consequently find the conversation on mental health too difficult to have with their families. With pressures on young people continuing to mount, be it through social media, beauty expectations, pressure to succeed and fit in or other problems, the number of those affected looks set to rise unless the education system sees drastic change.

In a bid to tackle the issue and get teachers talking, Headucation UK started a petition to make mental health education compulsory in primary and secondary schools.

The petition, which closed on 3 May and has garnered over 100,000 signatures, saw a response from the government that indicated that ‘schools should decide how to teach pupils about mental health’.

It’s an ineffective proposal to place this control solely in the hands of individual schools when clearly they aren’t doing enough. Kids need teachings on issues and stigma, access to support, and guidance on how to best assist others – and they’re not getting it.

Without such teachings, stigma surrounding mental health issues continues to hold strong and information is passed down incorrectly, whilst stereotypes are relayed in TV, films and other forms of popular culture. Young people spend time in complete darkness about what they may be experiencing, none the wiser to the fact that they’re not alone at all.

Compulsory mental health education could be an incredibly positive step forward in overcoming the mental health crisis that we as a country are currently facing. Simply encouraging these young people to openly discuss their emotions from an early age would be a start. Teaching kids the symptoms to look out for, giving them a greater understanding of the spectrum of mental health issues, educating them on how to help each other, and providing appropriate support could all factor towards a culture of young people not being afraid to seek the help they need.

Samantha Francis of mental health support service Find A Balance (iii), when speaking of introducing mental health education into schools, said the following:

“Mental health education should be introduced to children in schools as young as Year One, and lessons should be tailored to the specific age groups on a regular basis, ideally and at least once a fortnight. This would raise awareness of the emotions that children are feeling and to promote the concept of reaching out and speaking to someone.”

She continued, “You have children as young as five suffering with mental illnesses, so teaching mental health to children of all ages and backgrounds would raise awareness and normalise the common disorder since it will be discussed more openly”.

Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to pretend that all children and young people think about is playing with toys, hanging out with friends and enjoying a worry-free life, the reality is not so sweet. Instead of awkwardly avoiding the possibility of such issues with that traditional British ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude and telling ourselves that it’ll ‘never happen to my children’, it’s surely time to realise that mental health issues will not disappear with a brisk brush under the carpet.

We spoke with a local mental health worker who advised us that teachings on the issue as part of the national curriculum would be useful in eradicating stereotypes and removing stigma.

“Despite what many people think, mental health is such a broad spectrum. Teaching students about it throughout their education could have an impact on people’s actions too if they are more aware of what others may be dealing with.”

A local resident, who has suffered with obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety, said that had they been taught about mental illness in school they would have had the courage to seek help earlier.

“It was a pretty tough time – I had no idea what it was I was going through. I couldn’t put a name on it. I thought OCD was all about ordering your books and what not. Had I had the education on the matter, I probably would have sought out support a lot earlier. It could’ve made my teenage years a lot better.”

The benefit of mental health education is abundantly clear. So whilst the movement behind Mental Health Awareness week is certainly a much-needed and positive one, it can’t end there. What we need next is action. Moving forward, we need to push for the inclusion of appropriate education as a necessity in positively combating mental health issues, as well as creating easier access to support systems and services. If not, we could be failing an entire generation – and that is something that as a nation, we should not be prepared to do.