‘To improve mental health in schools, we need a discussion about education, not vague “awareness-raising” initiatives about social media’

The government’s drive to ‘improve standards’ has systematically squashed all the joy out of teaching and school staff members are now enduring unbearable levels of stress, which must impact the environment young people find themselves in, writes mental health expert Natasha Devon in the Tes.

A new and comprehensive government-sponsored study undertaken by University College London and the University of Liverpool has revealed a quarter of girls and one in 10 boys exhibit symptoms of depression by the age of 14, representing a doubling in prevalence over 10 years. To the majority of parents and teachers, this will come as no surprise. However, after years of having evidence from education professionals dismissed as “anecdotal” by policymakers, it is helpful to have some solid statistical analysis to support the notion that poor mental health in young people is increasing at a dramatic rate.

Of course, experts will speculate that there is a difference between having a mental illness and exhibiting symptoms of one and they are absolutely right. My understanding is that while a person can have at least a proclivity toward the former regardless of their lifestyle, the latter is almost always a direct result of environment. This knowledge makes the evidence from UCL even more compelling, in that it naturally leads us to the question of what it is about the worlds that young people inhabit that causes such high levels of psychological distress.

There is, according to research used by Mental Health First Aid England, evidence showing a direct link between economic deprivation and poor mental health. Even if that wasn’t the case, however, wealth doesn’t automatically ensure happiness. In fact, historian Yuval Noah Harari states that incidents of suicide tripled in South Korea after the country became “westernised”. There is, he hypothesises in his book Homo Deus, danger in the imbibing of capitalist rhetoric which promises us happiness based on obtaining and consuming.

This is not, however, to make the same mistake Jeremy Hunt did when challenged by former shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger in the Commons on the issue of young people’s mental health and to blame the entire phenomenon on social media. To do so conveniently absolves the government of any responsibility to take action, other than some vague “awareness-raising” initiatives.

The former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s “character education” belief that lessons in character are just as important as academic grades is demonstrated in her new book Taught Not Caught: educating for 21st-century character. This might be succeeding in teaching pupils why it’s so important to look after their wellbeing, but other changes to the systems are making it virtually impossible for them to adopt and practice the habits, which would be necessary to achieve that. Additionally, the curriculum is woefully over-stuffed and if children are going to develop crucial skills in critical thinking to allow them to survive in an aggressive individualist, consumerist capitalist environment then there needs to be breathing space in the school day to allow for discussion and debate.

If the government is as intent on improving the mental health of young people as their PR machine would suggest, they need, urgently, to listen to the teaching profession and to have a serious discussion about the purpose of education.

Read more ‘To improve mental health in schools, we need a discussion about education, not vague “awareness-raising” initiatives about social media’

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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