It’s time to tackle mental health stigma in our classrooms

Former deputy head Chris Danes talks about a new scheme called Time to Change that targets mental health discrimination to help remove the stigma and discrimination many people with a mental health problem face. This is from the Guardian…

Bullying can take many forms and for those who live with mental health problems, being singled out and stigmatised as a “weirdo” or a “nutter” can, sadly, be a factor of daily life.

Mental health anti-stigma programme Time to Change challenges attitudes and behaviour towards mental health, to help to remove the stigma and discrimination that many people with a mental health problem face. A new film, The Stand up Kid, also encourages young people to question mental health as a taboo subject.

The film was launched after some fairly shocking research carried out in the West Midlands suggested that nearly one in 10 young people think that classmates with a mental health problem should not be at their school, while the same proportion said they would stop being friends with a peer who had a mental health problem.

There is no reason to think these figures would be any different in any classroom in the country.

Time to Change also found that nine out of 10 young people who have mental health problems in the West Midlands are affected by stigma and have experienced negative treatment as a result of their mental illness. Often, much of the discrimination they face comes from those they might need to turn to first including friends (66%), parents (54%) and, shockingly, teachers and lecturers (49%).

These new figures reveal just how prevalent the stigma of mental health problems is among 14 to 18 year-olds. The TV has been plugging away at the mental health issue for months – Jean with manic depression in EastEnders and Zac in Emmerdale with psychosis – but despite its best efforts, it hasn’t reached everyone or worked fast enough.

I have a particular interest in all of this. I come from a family where there are a number of people with mental health problems, and for many years I was a teacher, ending up as a deputy head. All my life I have also experienced periods of elation, high achievement and irresponsible behaviour followed by despair, guilt and suicidal thoughts. Eventually I had such a florid episode of mental illness that I was diagnosed as having bipolar 1 disorder and was told by the doctors that I should retire – a cause of great sadness and great relief to me at the same time.

Since being medicated and having received excellent treatment at the hands of the NHS I have been able to live something approaching what people call a ‘normal’ life, though I sometimes wonder if ‘normal’ has any other meaning than a cycle on a washing machine?

Throughout my teaching career I heard pupils telling one another with glee about some former colleague they had “given a nervous breakdown” and heard young people say, “I’m not going to sit near him, he’s a weirdo.” And as a deputy head, I had time and again to remind colleagues that anti-social behaviour and poor achievement can have other roots other than wickedness, indolence or low intelligence.

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