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We need mental health education in schools

Hi! My name is Kate and I live in London. I am a daughter, sister, student and mental health patient...

Statistics show just how many young people are affected by mental health conditions. Why then is mental health not on the national curriculum for primary and secondary schools?

 I vividly recall, throughout my primary and secondary education, lessons on safe sex, healthy eating, drug use and bullying, but not a single one on mental health. Mental health is as important as these other issues, so why isn't it covered? Furthermore, issues such as bullying have consequences on mental health (a 2014 Beatbullying survey found that 55% of those bullied as children develop mental health conditions as adults, with more than one in three becoming suicidal or self-harming). Yet, schools don't teach about the impacts of bullying, and other issues, on mental health.

Between the ages of 11 and 12, I experienced notable changes in my own mental health. Apart from going to school or to the odd sleepover/meet-up with friends, I barely left my room - let alone my house. I found myself constantly making up excuses to avoid going out.  My family would go out for dinner or on day trips or to the shops. I would just sit in my room all day, with the curtains drawn and the light off. I didn't know why.

I had just moved back to the UK and started at a quite conservative girls' grammar school. I would come home and (sometimes) self harm, intermittently starve and (attempt to) purge, and think about how I didn't want to be alive. One part of me was desperate for someone to read my mind, to notice I was not okay, whilst the other part of me put all energy into masking my struggles. When I turned 14 I moved schools again, this time to one in London. Despite this school being much more diverse, liberal and forward thinking in many ways, it again failed to provide any teaching on mental health. In my first year of sixth form, my mental and physical health deteriorated significantly and, at age 17, I ended up in hospital after a suicide attempt.

Throughout my school years I had no clue what was wrong with me. I had never been taught about things such as depression, eating disorders, anxiety, or suicidal ideation so how on earth was I supposed to understand what was happening to me?

It's hard to understand things, let alone express them to others, when you don't have a language or context for them.

Mental health conditions are preventable and treatable, but by not openly talking about them the education system is contributing to young people living in fear and shame with conditions that are not their fault and are certainly nothing to be ashamed about. I would go as far as to say that it's immoral that mental health education is not compulsory in schools; not educating young people on issues that could affect any one of them is negligent.

The stigmas attached to mental health exist through, and are fuelled by, ignorance. We can't blame people for being ignorant when they haven't been taught properly. Without mental health education, it is inevitable that from a young age people are going to be ill informed about mental health. As a result they will struggle to speak out, to understand their own mental health, or support others with a mental illness. Until people start talking about and normalising mental health, ignorance and stigmas will continue to be reinforced.

Being taught about mental health may not necessarily have prevented my mental health conditions (my schools did not cause my mental illnesses) but I may have been more aware of my mental health. Maybe I would have felt able to seek help; maybe I wouldn't have feared being judged; maybe I would have recognised sooner that I wasn't well; and maybe things would not have reached the very dangerous point they did.

Rather than addressing the symptoms of acute poor mental health (at which point it may be too late) the focus should be on education, prevention and early intervention. Mental health education in schools would enable young people to recognise their behaviours. It would give them a language, to enable them to speak out about their own mental health with the confidence that they will not be stigmatised, but that their feelings will be validated and they will receive the support they deserve and need.

  • 26% of young people in the UK experience suicidal thoughts*
  • 1 in 10 suicides are by those aged 15-24**
  • 10% of young people aged 5-16 have a diagnosable mental health condition (and in Islington, levels of mental ill health among 5-17 year olds are an estimated 36% higher than the national average)***

  *YoungMinds (2016a) Mental health statistics
 **YoungMinds (2016b) Mental health statistics
***Islington Joint Strategic Needs Analysis - Chapter 3 Mental health (PDF)

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