By Lottie McGrath
The stigma around mental health in schools remains immense, with over 1 in 4 child sufferers failing to attend for fear of judgement over their mental health. Such stigma, symptomatic of the age old ‘stiff upper lip’ mentally of the british public, not only infects our ability to discuss and understand mental health, but also negatively discourages many from reaching out for help when they need it. But, more precisely, the stigma is the result of a severe structural deficiency in mental health education which fails to include young people in conversations around mental health.
The statistics around mental health in the UK are shocking. 20% of adolescents struggle from mental health problems; 50% of mental health conditions are established before the age of 14; 1 in 6 people experience depression or anxiety; 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder; those who identity as LGBTQ+ are statistically more likely to experience a mental health issue; 1 in 14 self-harm; 1 in 5 have suicidal thoughts and 1 in 15 will attempt suicide at some point in their lifetime. Making these statistics all the more problematic is that so many of us have no idea how to recognise or meaningfully discuss these mental health conditions. Simply because we were not taught how.
In 2017, a study found that 79% of British parents believed pupils should receive a more in-depth mental health education in schools. New mental health education did come into force in September 2020 but the secondary school syllabus remains limitingly focused on the prevention of mental health issues and therefore is peppered with glaring gaps around the ways in which mental health issues actually do manifest themselves. Ideas that exercise and less time on social media aids mental wellbeing are valuable, but this sustained emphasis on how to “protect” mental wellbeing implies that any mental health issues that do emerge are the result of personal failure.
The syllabus appears to approach mental health with a rhetoric of right and wrong. Pupils are encouraged to “talk about their emotions accurately” and are taught how “to critically evaluate when something they do or are involved in has a positive or negative effect on their own or others’ mental health”. The result of this? An internalised rhetoric that there is a right and wrong way of being and that our thoughts or feelings define who we are.
What is lacking from this curriculum is a discussion on the nuances of mental health, not just ‘mental wellbeing’ but conversations around the various forms in which mental health can rear its ugly head. We cannot continue to conceptualise mental health as one big term to be universally applied to everything, instead, we need to teach young people about the various forms that mental health issues can take. Questions like ‘what are the various types of eating disorders?’, ‘What are the signs of mood disorders?’, ‘What is an appropriate context for use of the term ‘OCD’?’ are all valuable topics, and they all have the potential to go a long way in changing the ways in which we stigmatise mental health.
Because young people are not included in the conversation and given a refined knowledge, mental health becomes something scary and taboo. Something that is the result of genes, social situation, trauma, environment – or in other words, a common fact of life – is frequently an off-limits topic.
This outdated discourse, which shies away from mental health conversations at non-medical and youth levels of society, causes us to recoil in terror at subjects like self-harm, anorexia or suicide.
The consequence? A proliferation of young people too afraid to articulate their experience for fear of rejection.
The work of others- is it enough?
The majority of education around mental health in young people comes from charities. In 2017, the Anna Freud Centre and the Duchess of Cambridge produced an informational video around mental health for children; NipintheBud, (created by Place2Be) informs parents and professionals about children’s mental health through the use of film and charities like Place2Be and YoungMinds offer teacher training, guidance, and counseling in schools.
Similarly, the Youth Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA), funded by the Department of Health and Social Care, offers the opportunity for free one-day mental health training for teachers. However, this is limited to one member of staff per school. Building on this, Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield recently called for a mental health counsellor to be placed in every school.
All this is extremely valuable but is more aimed at supporting young people with poor mental health rather than educating them about issues that affect 1 in 4 of the population. Transparency is needed to tackle stigma and this cannot happen until we involve young people themselves in the conversation.
US Studies have shown that students who are educated in mental health are more likely to reach out for help. Therefore, given that 50% of mental health problems are established by the age of 14, surely it is worth teaching the young people of Britain about mental health.
What we need is a discourse that addresses the stigma and paints mental health in terms that are accepting and inclusive; in terms that not only reinforce that it is ‘okay not to be okay’ but also highlight the various ways in which poor mental health can manifest itself and affect people.
The less you talk about something, the scarier it becomes, and we need only apply this logic to realise that young people need to be included in the conversation around the nuances of mental health. Only once we address this structural deficiency can we begin to beat the stigma.
Graphic courtesy of Tilda Trevitt.