Something has gone drastically wrong in the last 25 years. We are in a national crisis. And it’s reached a critical state where our country’s mental health is under the spot light and undeniably of great national importance. The issues are only going to escalate over time if not tackled. But, what are the root causes and how do we find effective long term sustainable solutions?
On the 6th of November, for almost three hours this was debated by MP’s in parliament at Westminster. I sat in the public gallery of the House of Commons as Catherine McKinnell the MP from Newcastle opened the debate by congratulating the Shaw Foundation for getting over 100,000 people to sign the petition to make mental health education compulsory in all schools. What followed was largely a one-sided debate where all ministers agreed that we are facing a tsunami of mental health problems for which we are ill prepared.
The evidence was damping and the data worrying:
- In 2016, 93% of teachers reported seeing increased rates of mental health illness in the classroom.
- Future in Mind, a department of health study estimated that around 850,000 children suffer from mental health issues. That’s three in every school class.
- In the last year 248,000 children were referred for specialist mental health treatment.
- One in twelve teenagers in the UK self-harm, more than anywhere else in Europe and almost 19,000 children were admitted to hospital for self-harm in 2015-2016, a 68% increase in the last decade.
- The NSPCC reports that 10% of children suffer from depression and that child related worries have increased by 200%.
- The number of children forced out of mainstream education has risen by 40% in the past three years, where 50% of these excluded children were recognised as having a mental health problem.
- The results of the 2015 PISA study showed that out of 36 developed countries; British children felt the most pressurised at school.
- Suicide is the biggest killer for under 25-year olds with 126 suicides a week in this age bracket.
- 75% of school leaders say they lack resources and training needed to deal with the mental health issues.
- 40% of new teachers do not continue teaching after their first year largely due to the stress.
- The care quality commission found that only 25% of children with mental health issues are able to access care or treatment because the NHS is struggling to keep up with the demand.
- 85% of prisoners have one or more mental health problems.
- Since 2015 there has been 2.8 billion in funding cuts to schools and 600 million cuts in funding for mental health from 2010 to 2015.
The world health organisation states that mental health is the defining issue of the 21st century and that by 2030 the biggest problem will be our lack of mental health. Some of the root causes debated by MP’s were the clear link to the negative impact of social media’s ‘share everything’ culture; too much pressure from a young age to pursue high academic standards; frequent cyberbullying and sexting; increased obsession with body awareness; and lack of skills that prepare children for life – such as resilience, within the curriculum. It was agreed that the main triggers that cause mental health illness are stress and pressure, and that we have an education system that has made a clear choice between academic standards and well-being.
Albeit we all agree that academic success, setting goals, having high standards and being driven is important, we can also all agree that once it becomes indispensable and only achievable at the expense of our emotional well-being, it loses its worth.
During the debate I found myself thinking that if we had to see the world through the eyes of a child, we would see a place that is more competitive and less safe than any previous generation. There are now higher study costs and an increasingly competitive job market, and the latest statistics show that the rise in crime is accelerating with the UK becoming increasingly violent. There were 458,000 violent offences against people last year, a rise of 18% and reported rapes doubled in the last four years to 23,851 whilst the conviction rate fell to 7.5%. Is this perception of an unsafe and competitive world fueling the mental health crisis? Should we be looking at how we can build character education across the school curriculum so that the next generation has a better moral compass? A society with less crime and more young people of high integrity and compassion would surely result in better mental health for all. We are paying a heavy price for an education system that puts too much emphasis on academic knowledge and places too little significance on character within the curriculum.
How much time during school is allocated to helping our young people develop their character and resilient minds? The current curriculum allows for one lesson a week of PSHE (Personal, social, health and economic education) which covers:
- Alcohol, smoking and drugs.
- Personal health.
- Citizenship, democracy and human rights.
- Careers and the world of work.
- Personal finance.
- Family and relationships.
- Sex education.
Ministers voiced that it would be wholly inappropriate to roll out mental health lessons within PSHE because this one lesson a week approach has already shown to be hopelessly inadequate. I believe that Theresa May’s plans for every school to have an on-site mental health professional at least one day a week to address mental health is the equivalent of placing one British soldier in every Iraqi town to reduce the impact of Isis. Her further plans for every secondary school in the country to be offered mental health first aid training are far too reactive because this merely focuses on detection of children at risk and referral to the NHS instead of being proactive and providing any preventative measures. Many minsters voiced that early diagnosis was not the main problem, but the waiting times before a child was seen by a health professional was the real issue as delayed treatment could cause irreversible or long-term damage. CAMHS, the NHS child and adolescent mental health services unit can take between six months to two years before providing children with treatment. This is a scandal, imagine your child breaking their leg and it taking months or years to receive treatment, picture the physical implications, not to mention the long-term emotional implications. CAMHS is at breaking point and urgent steps are needed by the government to overhaul this department. Our current approach is very “delayed” by focusing on children disclosing mental health problems or detecting these problems and then trying to deal with the problems after the fact, once it has become severe and inevitably leaves a permanent scar on all involved.
Are you sufficiently depressed by all this? Well, what if I told you that I believe that we can reduce these mental health illnesses by 50% within the next five years and eliminate them within 10 years. To do this we need to make mental health compulsory in all schools and focus on the root causes of mental health illness and make systemic changes to our education system to address them. It’s going to be hard to make this quantum breakthrough in the current state of our nation’s mental health because it requires a paradigm shift – a whole new way of seeing, interpreting and understanding the teaching profession and the education of a child.
An important barrier to well-being that must be overcome is excessive pressure. There is little point introducing mental health in schools whilst we continue to undermine children’s well-being with too much pressure to perform academically, it’s counter intuitive. Not only are we failing to equip young people to deal with the issues, but we are adding fuel to the fire by adding more pressure to their already fragile stress levels. The present mental health epidemic tells us that we are off course. Education is about preparing young people for life and schools have a critical role to play in building strong and resilient young people. We could choose a different path, a new paradigm by educating the whole-person and building a whole-school culture that focuses on preventive strategies that can build resilience, grit and well-being into our school curriculums to avoid the problem in the first place. A whole-person approach involves educating a child’s mind (growth and development), body (health and energy to live), heart (strong relationships and being able to follow their passions), and spirit (finding meaning and opportunities for contribution). We currently focus almost exclusively on the mind with too much pressure to deliver on narrowly defined test scores and by enlarge neglect the other three elements that create a healthy and happy young person.
We need a whole person teaching a whole child – a holistic approach to creating human thriving and flourishing. The whole-person approach will serve as a preventative tool; it arms the teachers with the necessary skills to overcome the ‘hard moments’ they often face. From the parliamentary debate it was clear that the one thing no one wanted was a compulsory mental health strategy for schools that increased the pressure on teachers, becoming just another tick box exercise for a mental health lesson. By and large ministers felt passionately that a whole-person and whole-school approach was needed where teachers are adequately trained and resourced to work with all stakeholders. The whole-school approach would enable teachers to teach well-being and life skills with integrated approaches across the curriculum as well as providing direct lessons. If we can take a holistic approach by enabling teachers to educate the whole-person and deliver and embed well-being across the curriculum, many of these problems could be nipped in the butt at an early age.
Some MP’s expressed that teachers are not mental health professionals and should not be expected to act as such. However, in most instances teachers are by default already having to fulfil this role and all too often forced to “stick plasters on gaping mental health issues” and then left to deal with the consequences. Teachers are at the coal face of where it happens – they have a unique frontline opportunity to take responsibility for the preventative work that is required to build life skills, emotional well-being and resilient children. Besides, if they don’t do this work effectively the child’s ability to learn becomes impossible and both academic performance and well-being suffers, resulting in a lose-lose for all.
The other concern raised was the danger of overburdening teachers with even more to do with less resources. A survey by the national union of teachers found that 53% of teachers are thinking of quitting the profession in the next two years because of workload, lack of personal well-being and due to the declining morale in the profession in the last five years. It appears that we have an education system that is not valuing the emotional well-being of our teachers so to expect these same teachers to be in an emotionally good place to enhance the mental health of our children is highly unlikely. The first step to supporting the well-being of young people is to address the recruitment and retention crisis in teaching. The teaching profession is becoming a less attractive career because it is almost no longer a profession due to the lack of autonomy and decision making permitted. Teachers feel profoundly disempowered and that they have lost their voice. Many educators agree that the vast majority of teachers possess more intelligence, creativity and capability than their jobs require or even allow them to use. The job that teachers have to do has to change and teachers need a voice in how it needs to change. Instead of solely meeting Ofsted’s academic requirements, change needs to happen to meet the needs of the teachers and the real needs of the children they are teaching.
This means we need to create a school culture that puts well-being at the centre of the teaching profession so that it can lead to fostering better teacher-pupil relationships to support children’s mental well-being. If we can train teachers to cope with challenges they are facing and help them to help themselves they will be more likely to help their pupils. We can create a whole school approach whereby teachers can transform the lives of children in their care. Our schools need to be empowered to enable their teachers to prepare children for the challenges they are going to face in life. This means teachers need to be freed from the current straight jacket curriculum. All stakeholders; education leaders, teachers, parents, business leaders and young people need to be involved in redesigning a new school curriculum. The child must no longer be forced to fit into an outdated 19th century industrialised education system. The new curriculum must be highly adaptive so it meets our children’s varied needs – it must prepare them to become good citizens of character and empower them with the skills they will need in the knowledge worker economy of the 21st century. The new curriculum must emancipate our teachers and re-professionalise the teaching profession giving them renewed purpose that light their passion and desire to teach, a profession to be proud of.
We need to create a school-wide culture and curriculum that enables us to utilise the full capabilities of our teachers. Teachers are the real leaders that need to be allowed to use their creativity, resourcefulness, initiative, flexibility and ingeniousness to do whatever it takes to help children lead healthy and happy lives. For the whole-person approach to work we need to tap into a teacher’s vision, passion and discipline and help them to build partnerships with the child and parent to prevent mental health issues. Teachers need the support to be able to build open and authentic relationships of high trust with pupils and parents. We need to invest in our teachers (training and resources) so that we can build the right mind-set and skill-set within them to do their work to their highest potential. Teachers also need more time to collaborate, plan and communicate with pupils and parents. Finland is ranked to have the number one education system in the world by the WEF, teachers are contracted to work 39 hours a week of which 21 hours are allocated for teaching – the remainder are for planning, preparation, prevention, collaboration and communication. Teachers in the UK spend virtually all their time teaching and have “too much to do with too little time”, resulting in them offering up their ‘personal time’ to tend to everything else leaving them with no time to renew themselves consequently leading to nervous breakdowns, panic attacks, burnouts, depression and a loss of desire, passion and drive.
One minister asked from what age will mental health lessons start and how much time per week will be allocated to it? This missed the point completely, because many MP’s thought that well-being needs to be embedded throughout the school culture. Research shows that early intervention is important, as regrettably, by the time the child gets to school some of the damage has already been done. It is easier to build strong children than repair broken adults. Training teachers is cardinal to the issue because teachers need to be confident in their skills and well prepared to start helping children from the moment they start school. The earlier young people are educated about mental health the better. But, it’s not just increased skills we are talking about, it’s a complete culture change and a well-being community we need to establish within education. These changes need to facilitate young people talking about mental health. Evidence shows that a whole-school culture is the key to promoting well-being for staff and pupils, and that peer-to-peer support and the involvement of families into the process has a remarkable positive impact. The new mental health framework needs to enable peer conversations about mental health because many pupils either feel isolated or due to peer pressure unable to speak out.
Relationships between the family and the school is critical to support mental health. For example, take two of the drivers of mental health illness amongst young people today – social media and sleep deprivation. My 15-year old daughter’s teacher recently asked her class how many of your parents commandeer your mobile phones before you go to bed? Only two out of 22 children’s parents did. That’s less than 10%, I wonder whether this percentage could be representative of all the children in the UK. It’s the equivalent of leaving the alcohol cupboard fully stocked and unlocked and expecting your resident alcoholic not to have a drink. Most teenagers are not addicted to their mobile devices – it’s an attached IV drip, a life line. Children are under a new form of scrutiny and there is no safe place for a child now. Cyberbullying, sexting and pornography can attack them in the safety of their own bedroom, and it’s all public. It’s not surprising that young people are scared and anxious. There are three factors that lead to children’s online habits causing a decrease in their mental health. The amount of time they are spending online, the isolation this leads to and the lack of a strong social support network this causes. According to research from Childwise, Children in the UK, aged five to 16 spend on average six and a half hours a day online compared to around three hours watching screens in 1995. This is six and a half hours a day that children are spending alone being subjected to an average of 120,000 images and messages per year designed to compare themselves with others and make them feel unhappy. The link between social isolation and reduced psychological well-being is well established in sociology. Children in previous generations were more likely to be spending these hours socialising with friends, family and building strong relationships and in the process developing their social skills and confidence. All this work put into developing friendships by interacting face-to-face with peers led to children having much higher levels of independence 25 years ago. Children’s online habits are keeping them isolated and stuck in a dependence mode where they fear not being good enough, fear failing, become less resilient and don’t have a social support group to talk through these difficult issues. The tri-factor approach that involves the parent, child and teacher communicating about well-being and responsible age-appropriate online access is critical to cracking the mental health code. The teacher needs to partner with the child and parent/guardian to prevent mental health issues.
Mental Health has a domino effect that not only affects the whole family, but also the next generation, and we know that the state of our country’s mental health is only getting worse. Mental health can hit you at any point, even if you’ve been brought up in a happy home. The number one trigger as we’ve established is stress and anxiety and many affluent and middle-class children from independent schools are suffering – although more prevalent, it’s not reserved for children living in areas of high deprivation. There has never been greater awareness of children’s mental health issues, yet there’s never been fewer resources to deal with these issues. Schools are under great pressure due to funding cuts. These cuts will have a long-term impact on educational outcomes. Many headteachers are encumbered by the overwhelming amount of time spent on dealing with mental health issues and bad online behaviour that has serious offline repercussions. What is needed is an “invest to save” approach so that teachers and children are better supported with their emotional well-being. We need an entire shift in attitude regarding mental health with a well thought out mental health whole-school strategy. We have an education system that is not fit for purpose. It’s not working for teachers, it’s not working for the children, who is it working for? We need to utilise teacher’s full capacities and have a knowledge worker approach to the teaching profession so teachers have the freedom to adapt the curriculum to help children succeed in life. If a cohort needs to take the afternoon off from academics because what they need are life skills to assist them with their personal development – teachers need to be able to use their professional judgement and make decisions based on children’s needs.
If we use this whole-person and whole-school approach to teaching well-being and life skills we are going to see a dramatic reduction in teacher’s and children’s mental health issues. This holistic approach will prevent mental health illnesses occurring and successfully treat it within the school if it does occur. A step change is needed by the government. If the government starts to think about the problem in a new way and stops being reactive and starts making significant investments in education to fund the whole-person and whole-school approach we can eliminate our mental health issues within the next 10 years. This approach means that mental health education is compulsory in schools and well-being is prioritised by every school and by all its teachers so that it becomes central to every lesson on every school day. Well-being becomes the foundation, the framework that everything else fits into and around. If this happens the culture within our schools will literally be transformed and this metamorphosis will lead to the self-transformation of our teachers and children. Part of this process is that the role of a teacher in society will change and be enlarged. The teacher’s purpose will no longer be to chiefly provide children with knowledge and prepare them to excel in exams. The teacher will become a leader in society that facilitates knowledge and mentors our young people’s character development, life skills and well-being. Education leaders will see our teachers as societies’ greatest resource to reducing crime and mental health illnesses, and make significant investments in their personal and professional development so that they can become change agents. Teachers will look at the child as a whole-person that needs to be loved, nurtured and developed to their full potential. Children will no longer be treated as a thing that must regurgitate the correct information and be defined by a grade. For a teacher understands a child’s true capacities better than any grade. I know that the old paradigm of teaching will die hard, but that this new paradigm of the teaching profession excites many teachers because they want to passionately be free to teach their children skills for life. When this happens, we are going to create a thriving teaching profession that any teacher will be proud to be part of and honoured to be able to have such an impact on a young person’s life, because we will unleash the full capacities of teachers to allow them to mould and sculpt our children to allow them to pave a better life for themselves.
Adam Shaw, the founder of the Shaw foundation charity asks the question; “what are the benefits of not having compulsory mental health in all schools?” At first glance, the only benefit that I can think of is that we would save money as implementing this is going to require increased funding for schools. But, mental health illness is already costing our schools, hospitals and industry billions of pounds each year. There are simply no benefits. The crisis is here. The calamity is now and our government is playing Russian Roulette with this generation of children. We need to be open to learning from other more forward-thinking countries that do not have the mental health issues we are facing. For example, when it comes to mental health, there is much we can learn from our neighbours in Holland – where there are very little mental health problems. To the contrary, in the recent UNICEF mental health report, Dutch children were declared the happiest children in the world. British children ranked at the very bottom as the unhappiest. The Dutch don’t opt for a quick fix PSHE lesson but prefer a sustainable long-term approach to integrating mental health into the whole school with early independence training that enables children to take charge of their own well-being. There is also much less pressure on children to produce the right academic results. The Dutch have a more proactive education system and are the leading European country to launch initiatives such as the Leader in Me which teach children skills for life whilst building a culture of well-being within the school community. The leader in Me puts children in charge of their own mental health, it enables them to modulate their emotions and listen to each other with empathy. The Dutch have found the process helps teachers become a person of high moral authority and helps children understand their own mental health and this self-awareness is the key to them taking responsibility for their well-being and learning. The Dutch are skilling up future generations with these initiatives. The UK needs to become more proactive; proven processes such as the Leader in Me and others like Mindfulness needed to be adequately invested in to ensure positive long term educational outcomes. The government has promised to release a green paper on mental health in schools this December. It needs to be proactive and bold!
United Education Group