Mental health – starting at school

By Fiona Murden, Psychologist and author

Simon has been struggling with what ‘goes on in his head’ for some time. He really wants to sort it out but isn’t quite sure how. And although more and more people are saying ‘it’s ok to not be ok’ and talking about mental health it still doesn’t really feel like something that he can open up to anyone about. Maybe he’s alright after all. Maybe he’s just imagining it. What would people think if they knew what he was thinking? Would they treat him differently? Would they think he was weak? Or a failure? Or not the person they’ve always thought he was? 

Simon recalls the visit they had last week at school. Some guy came in to talk about ‘stuff’ relating to mental health. He was so messed up that he tried to take his own life. He survived and now that’s what he does – goes around telling school kids about it. Trying to make it seem ‘normal’. Simon thinks to himself ‘I’m not that bad, yeah I’m OK, I just feel a bit angry and upset sometimes but that’s alright, I mean it’s OK to not be OK right?’ 

By the time Simon reached the age of 26 his mental health had deteriorated considerably. He’d begun taking drugs and drinking heavily and had even attempted to take his own life. 

This is happening more and more. 

What’s the problem? While we’re doing more and more to help with mental health, to raise awareness and to address the issues it still isn’t enough. For example:

We don’t thread through teaching about mental health and the mind from start to finish. While there has been a dramatic uptick in the number of interventions in schools – Simon’s visit by ‘someone who had been there’ is just one example – they are not joined up. They need to be weaved into the curriculum from early years to when children leave the school system to build on knowledge and understanding and help to make sense of what’s being taught. It’s like teaching addition in year 2 of school, then no more maths until year 8 when algebra is introduced. It just wouldn’t make sense and wouldn’t work. 

It’s often not based on evidence. There’s a nuanced difference between interventions that have been researched and those that have not. For example, colouring in framed as mindfulness is actually relaxation. Learning mindfulness properly involves understanding how to engage and disengage with emotions and cognitive thought processes. 

We don’t provide children with the opportunity to ‘try it and see’. Once both of the above factors are in place, children need to be able to try out the (evidence based) strategies and approaches and see which ones work for them. Then use them and practice them to make them easily accessible when they need them most. Over time this will allow children and young people to build a manual to their own mind – equipping them with skills for life.  

We don’t recognise that these skills are essential to career success. There’s a huge emphasis on cognitive skills attainment yet research shows that as technology and Artificial Intelligence increase, so will the need for social and emotional skills. These are the same skills that build emotional resilience and protect mental health. 

Teachers are not supported, and stress is contagious. If teachers are stressed there is evidence to show that it increases levels of stress in pupils. Teachers need support and training to enhance their own wellbeing. Not only because they deserve it but because it’s also critical to providing the environment in which children can bolster and understand their own wellbeing. 

While this is a lot to tackle there are ways to do it and what’s more there are more accessible options available that we’re not fully leveraging – the power of role-models and mentors. 

Research carried out on a mentoring scheme in the US, similar in type to Future First has shown that young people who had mentors were 46% less likely to start using drugs and 27% less likely to drink alcohol. They were also less likely to skip school. The mentoring relationships resulted in improved confidence, levels of trust and relationships with parents and peers. They were more hopeful about the future, had improved communication skills, interpersonal skills, decision making and self-management skills. All of these factors not only improve life outcomes but also underpin better levels of mental health. 

And from our work at Future First we have seen first-hand that young people who are mentored feel better about themselves and as a result are better able to engage with schoolwork and have a greater resilience to face the challenges in their current and future life. Mentoring also helps them to connect what they learn in the classroom with what’s happening in their lives, homes and communities. Relatable mentors and role models really should be part of the wider prevention framework.

Simon is now in his late 20s and doing OK. He still has problems with his mental health but has learnt how to manage it. The question is – if the processes above were fixed – if he’d been taught these skills earlier on, would he be in a better place now? 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24. This not only highlights our need to intervene early but as we see rates increasing also suggests that we’re not doing enough to combat this. 

Schools provide the ideal setting to foster good mental health habits early on in life. This won’t prevent mental ill health, nor will it eradicate difficulties, but it will, if done right, improve a child’s life trajectory and equip them with the skills to more effectively navigate their internal and external worlds. Let’s start doing this properly – looking at inoculation and not just cure. 

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