Some days ago, I had a gentle professional disagreement with a former colleague. There is a movement to teach mental health issues in U.K. schools; I am sceptical about its value.
Unfortunately, the reaction to most problems in the U.K. (if not the wider world) is to spill more words than actions, in particular from the mouths of politicians and subsequently in classrooms. Having taught various pastoral issues in my time, I came to the view that while the intentions may be worthy, the effects of bringing such things formally into the classroom is of very limited effect.
Children may be immature human beings, but by their teenage years they are entirely capable of being or (becoming) cynical, and they tend to see efforts to direct their opinions in overt ways as unwanted moralising. This approach simply risks placing the issue on the wrong side of the difficult divide that many perceive between the ‘unreal’ world of the classroom and the events of their everyday lives; the very act of bringing something formally into a classroom seems to remove it from ‘real life’ in the eyes of many pupils. I have seen too many children earnestly discuss an issue in a lesson, only to leave and immediately perpetuate the problem; I don’t think this is a failure of the teaching so much as a quirk of human nature. The problem is, any discussion of such matters can only generalise, and this risks diminishing the fraught nature of the real experience.
As Graeme Nuttall wrote in The Hidden Lives of Learners[i], teachers only ever see a small part of children’s lives, and there is a huge professional temptation to believe that they have more influence over the rest than they actually do. Undoubtedly, raising awareness of mental health issues may have a place – but there is a difference between discussing social attitudes and the experience itself. Encouraging children not to stigmatise those with mental health issues may yield a long-term change in social attitudes – which I think is underway in any case – and helping children to understand how bullying can provoke such problems may also be helpful. I do rather suspect, though, that those most prone to becoming bullies won’t care less anyway.
As for teaching mental health itself: can such issues be ‘taught’? I think not. The purpose of education is the acquisition of a capability for structured thought; the problem with mental health is that is does not obey such rules. Attempting to teach people self-diagnosis may again be worthy, but I think it is misguided and even potentially dangerous. Even as an aware and thoughtful adult, I failed to recognise my own difficulties for what they were, and I am not convinced that more ‘awareness’ would have made any difference. (After all, I have worked in a psychiatric hospital in the past, and am well aware of what mental illness looks like from the outside). It may be dangerous in the sense of encouraging children to ‘cry wolf’ with all the behavioural and support difficulties that can cause, amongst which genuine cases may get lost.
As for teaching people what mental illness is like, this is utterly misguided. I’m not sure it is even possible to teach what physical illness is like, except in a clinical sense, and that may not be of great use for those coping with it. Having now been on the ‘inside’, I simply do not see how a teacher could begin to describe what it is like to be the one inside that head. Even with insider experience, I am not certain I could do it either: most of the experience either literally defies words, or is so irrational as to make no sense when described.
Unfortunately, it is far easier to give something a slick ‘rebranding’ than actually do something fundamental about a problem. I saw this writ large having been involved with the Healthy Schools initiative, where many people spent expensive time ticking boxes and gaining accreditations – that still made precious little difference to what went in children’s mouths.
I fear the same will occur here – but from the perspective of those in charge, the requisite boxes will have been ticked even if little really changes.
What would be far more successful would be to lead by example. As I said, actions speak louder than words; there is evidence that even infants are more influenced by what they see than anything else[ii]. The best way to influence what children eat is to set them a good example; the same goes for any other aspect of behaviour, even if the occasional other intervention may also be necessary.
The best way to tackle the growth in reported mental health issues is to stop causing them (and in that applies to the teachers’ experiences too). The irony of this seems to have gone largely unnoticed: from my experience the biggest single cause of stress in schools is the over-inflated stakes that the results-obsessed education system itself imposes on its employees and clientele alike. The politicians’ recent pronouncements have been strikingly short of comment on this, let alone teacher mental health, even in the sense it might have a knock-on effect to their pupils.
The system caused the problems; it now feels that it needs to address them. It could start by aiming the water at the flame rather than the smoke.