The Pressing Need For Grass Roots Mental Health Education

Alyssa Shep addresses the need for mental health education in schools and how it may normalise conversations about the subject, allowing individuals to get the help they need without shame. What would a grass roots movement really look like though?

For the majority of my time in secondary school, four out of thirty hours of my schooling a week were dedicated to my physical health, whether that be in the form of physical education lessons, or lessons about nutrition and wellbeing. Once a year, my year group also received a visit from a district nurse, who issued lessons on sexual health and the pertinent need to use contraception. This article seeks not to dispute how necessary such lessons dedicated to physical health are for young children and teenagers in school. It is, of course, extremely important for young people to be educated on how to remain physically healthy, the dangers of substance abuse, and how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. Yet, until recently, there seems to have been a critical tool for understanding how to maintain good health as a young person that was missing in the toolkits of schools around the UK – that being, compulsory mental health education for children and teenagers.

The absence of mental health education in school curricula until recently is surprising, given the rising mental health epidemic that is blighting the lives of an alarming three children in each classroom across the country. Did you know, for example, that more than half of all mental health illnesses begin before the age of fourteen years-old? Furthermore, one in ten children between the ages of five and sixteen years old are diagnosed with a mental health problem, and will likely continue to suffer from these issues in adulthood.

In July of this year, the Department of Education outlined their plans to alleviate this rising epidemic, and to guarantee that education will thoroughly prepare young children and teenagers for life in today’s modern world. Under its proposals, the Department of Education claims that health education will become compulsory for all UK school pupils from September 2020, and will ensure that pupils are taught how to build mental resilience and wellbeing. The plans also detail that pupils will be instructed on how exactly to recognise if they, or others, are having difficulties dealing with their mental health, and how best to respond. 

Whilst the proposals contain elements of promise, and are most definitely an improvement from the complete lack of mental health education provision made for schools across the UK, there still appear to be gaps in the government’s response to the growing mental health crisis amongst young people. Provision for mental health education, for example, still remains part of the Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PHSE) curriculum – a non-compulsory subject, that is quite frequently neglected due to a lack of teacher training and curriculum time to teach the lesson. Furthermore, the government has stated its desire to encourage schools to be able to decide for themselveshow exactly to teach pupils about mental health, and to develop their own programmes in PHSE, unique to the needs of their pupils. The fact is, however, that many school boards complain of a lack of resources to support the mental health needs of their pupils, as well as ambiguous PHSE guidance from the government that is failing the young people they are struggling to assist. Mental health education needs to be consistent across the board, and the government needs to ensure that each and every PHSE guidance teacher in the UK is being given the same training and support to avoid mental health education being taught to varying degrees. No one child’s mental health is more important than another – why should a child suffer in one town or county from a lack of support because their school has not benefited from the same consistency in PHSE guidance than another in a town twenty-miles away? 

The gaps that remain in the Department of Education’s “bold” plans to tackle the alarming statistics relating to mental illness amongst young people are worrying. Unwittingly, perhaps, in leaving such gaps, the government has set a standard that mental health education is not as important as other elements of a child’s education, nor worth as much of the government’s time and attention. Educating young children and teenagers on the importance of communicating about mental health issues, however, needs to be made a top priority. This type of early intervention may seem extreme at the outset, but will have positive benefits that will help to build a more open and mentally resilient society in the future, thus easing the current strain on the National Health Service, as it strives to battle the rising mental health epidemic. 

Compulsory lessons will also help to normalize conversations about mental health, thus breaking down the stigma surrounding what is, at present, still considered a taboo subject. In the long run, as they attempt to navigate the various pressures they face in today’s modern world, children and teenagers will feel more confident and comfortable enough to share not only how they personally are feeling with others, but will also become more proactive in acknowledging when others around them may also be struggling to cope. As they then enter the adult world, with this awareness of the importance of good emotional and mental health, children and teenagers will be able to contribute more to the UK’s society, industry, economy, and to their own families, as fully functioning, healthy adults. 

I’ll end on a personal note. Most days I usually get my five portions of fruit and vegetables into my diet. I try to do an hour of exercise five days a week. I don’t drink alcohol excessively. I’ve never had a smoking or drug habit. I credit all of this to the excellent standard of physical health education that I received at secondary school. But, for the best part of four years of my life, I suffered from three separate mental health issues. I knew nothing about them, so much so that I struggled to even realize that they were what I was struggling so very much to deal with. I didn’t feel comfortable to talk to anybody about them. I can’t help but think that if I had had even a single one-hour lesson about mental health issues, or the importance of open conversation, or even a check-up appointment with a school counsellor once a month, that I would have been better equipped to recognise and manage my illnesses, and to ask for help when I so desperately needed it. 

The Department of Education needs to re-assess the gaping holes left in its plans to support schools across the country in their desire to ensure the healthy functioning of students. To ignore this unique opportunity to more fully and effectively assimilate mental health goals and educational services would be doing children and teenagers a disservice, and would be denying them the chance to develop into emotionally stable and mentally resilient adults. Mental health education is just as important as physical health education, and has the potential to chance the course of so many lives. Knowledge and early intervention may not prevent mental health issues from arising, but they can help society to manage and cope with them.