Never have concerns over children’s mental health been so prominent in the news – and rightly so. Statistics for both adults and children regarding both mental health diagnoses and funding undoubtedly need our attention. In January 2016, NHS Digital began to collect figures regarding the number of under-19s in contact with mental health services; in June, number stood at 235,189. That’s 1 in 50 young people. That figure alone is shocking – on average, that’s at least one student in every other class, and at least several students in every year group in a school. What’s more frightening than that, though, is the unspoken statistics. 1 in 50 only begins to tell the true story: having the confidence, appropriate environment or support network is already a huge step for many young people, who continue to suffer in silence, remaining undetected by such data collections and yet still in need of help.
Whilst there has always been a need to increase the focus and funding on the mental health provision for young people, it has become a particularly pressing issues in recent years, with mounting evidence regarding the increasing pressures that young people face. Not only have the pressures being placed on schools and teachers trickled through to the attitudes of students, but the very climate of our society has changed. With economic inequalities and pressures, tense and unbalanced political and global situations and a range of uncertainties about what our children’s future will actually look like, it is no wonder that so many school-age students are suffering as a consequence.
The symptoms of some common mental health issues amongst both young people and adults (including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, eating disorders to name but a few of the most diagnosed examples) are hitting the headlines regularly now. Whilst some of the stigma attached to discussing mental and emotional issues has decreased through the brilliant work of organisations such as MIND, it still remains a marginalised health point compared to more tangible or physical issues – partly because to discuss mental health is still seen as a ‘weakness’ (particularly but far from exclusively with males) but also because it is inevitably harder to explain or talk through compared to a tangible problem such as a broken limb or physical illness. Although a £250 million annual funding increase for children and adolescent mental health services was announced before the election, in 2015-16 this was not fully met, and this is most certainly a contributing factor to the fact that discussing and tackling mental health is still such a pressing matter.
Nevertheless, despite ongoing financial battles with government funding and budget cuts (which must continue to be fought), it is imperative we begin to change approaches and attitudes towards mental health in schools regardless of broken money promises, both giving more time and significance to its teaching and creating more open, accepting atmospheres in educational settings in which issues can be raised. One of the biggest issues still in dealing with mental health issues is the inevitable stigma attached to having negative or perceived ‘weak’ feelings, as well as having the language with which to articulate anxiety, damaging thought processes or any challenging emotions in the first place. This must be a focus of PSCHE and pastoral time in primary and secondary education, but it can also be a driving force behind lessons. When teaching Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for instance, I shared a link to a MIND resource regarding split personality disorders, and current research into some forms of mental health issues that were even more stigmatised by Victorian society than they are today; it led to an incredibly vibrant class discussion, and narrowed the gap between learning and real life. By promoting Young Adult reading for pleasure and opening dialogue about some of the issues discussed, too, we can continue to normalise mental health issues and make students aware that they come in all shapes and sizes, and anyone can be affected. Having hit the big screens earlier this year, I read and promoted amongst students the brilliant ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness, which deals with anxiety, dealing with trauma and the very idea that we can all be visited by “monsters” in our minds; what we need to focus on is not pretending those demons don’t exist, but how they best be managed.
So that is my main message, I think. With more reports this week of the increased anxiety that students face (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-38861155), it is imperative that all educational and social avenues become standard forums for the articulation of any mind-related matters. The more opportunities we find to normalise discussions around mental health, the better.
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