Amy Dwyer makes the case for prioritising mental health education within the curriculum.
Physical education has long been an entrenched part of the curriculum, for good reason, but this begs the question, why do we ignore mental health education? After all, physical wellbeing is only part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Educating pupils on mental health issues would result in more informed young people, who know how to look after their mental health, recognise symptoms and where to seek help if they need it. The shift towards more rigorous curriculums and examinations, has resulted in the mental health of pupils being neglected in favour of league tables and results. As a result, now more than ever we need to be prioritising the mental health of young people and instilling in them, the habit of looking after their mental wellbeing.
Research has shown that 50% of mental health problems are established by the age of 14 and 75% are established by the age of 24. Thus, the vast majority of mental health issues develop during education. We need our education system to reflect this and adequately prepare young people to be able to handle problems with their mental health. Otherwise, we risk more generations who neglect their mental health and who are ostracised if they are brave enough to be open about their struggles. Recently there has been a move towards recognising the importance of prioritising our mental health and wellbeing, but there is much work still to be done and this should be viewed only as the first step in the right direction. Changes in education should be seen as one of the subsequent steps necessary to ensure that we give mental health the focus that it warrants.
Introducing mental health education would be a logical addition to physical education, which is currently a legal requirement for pupils. While, of course, physical education is essential to teach to young people, neglecting teaching pupils how to look after their mental health is a serious omission and represents a wider marginalisation of mental health in society. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is of course partially related to good physical health, but it is impossible to be healthy without good mental health and if we continue to omit this from schools then we are implying that this is not an important aspect of healthy living.
Content that would be important to cover would be: understanding the causes and symptoms of mental health issues, making young people aware of the resources that they can access through their phone or computer and the benefits of seeking help if you need it. It is crucial that young people understand that they are not alone in feeling a certain way and the first step to getting pupils to understand this is to be open and honest. Every pupil should be celebrated for who they are and this can similarly mark a shift towards the end of the toxic environment that has, to some extent, been created in schools, as a result of endless pressure and examinations.
Such a policy change would go hand in hand with the introduction of counsellors into schools, so that if children need further support, they can access it right then and there. There would be no six-month waiting lists and every child would get the support that they need. Similarly, this would provide further support for teachers in recognising symptoms in students.
Given that much of the pressure on the mental health of young people comes from school, whether from social anxiety, pressures around performing well during exams, bullying and worrying about the future, surely it is the responsibility of schools to ensure that young people learn how to handle this additional pressure.
This policy has the potential to instill the importance of looking after mental health in young people, but there needs to be a consistent and real effort to do so. It cannot be performative, we need real action and prioritisation of mental health to counteract this crisis and to ensure that academic pressures do not impact pupils to the same extent. However, it is important to note that this cannot be the only move. We need to recognise the harm that a shift towards constant examinations has on pupils and the benefits of returning to more coursework in assessments. Until then, any action to highlight mental health will inevitably be somewhat performative and so introducing mental health to the curriculum needs to be one of several policy changes in education.
Amy Dwyer is studying for an MA in Politics and is an ambassador at 50:50 Parliament. She is also Women’s Officer for the North West Young Fabians and Chair of the University of Manchester Young Fabians.