Why is mental health missing from general election manifestos?

17th May 2017 at 06:01
Mental health and wellbeing should at the front and centre of the election this year, writes Stuart Rimmer. So why aren’t they?

On Friday, London hosted the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) conference: a gathering of some of the world’s leading voices in wellbeing in education. Speakers such as Sir Anthony Seldon, Dr Martin Seligman and Lord Richard Layard came together from psychiatry, economics and education to explore wellbeing in education.

Their starting point was creating the solutions to how we might as educationalists prepare people for a flourishing life. As the leader of a post-16 college, for me there has never been a more important time to gain a deeper understanding of the issues facing young people and consider the practical steps and interventions that can enable young people to flourish. 

Last week, a joint education and health committee report was published on the role of education in mental health, suggesting the government should strengthen mental health training to equip teachers to recognise the early signs of mental illness and signpost the right support. The report also highlighted the need for early intervention and urged the government not to cut services, describing it as a “false economy”.

The report also acknowledged that achieving a balance between promoting academic attainment and wellbeing should not be seen “as a zero-sum activity”. This position was supported at the IPEN conference by Sir Anthony, who said the more we can make wellbeing, happiness and character part of the story, the stronger the student’s academic performance.

The very nature of being human

Last week, the Mental Health Foundation published their report, Surviving or Thriving, for Mental Health Awareness Week, which stated that only a small minority of people (13 per cent) reported living with high levels of good mental health. It called for a Royal Commission to investigate ways to prevent poor mental health and develop good mental health.

There is, rightly, a growing interest in mental health and wellbeing within society, whether in response to the "mental health epidemic" (a terrible term, as it suggests mental health is something that can be caught) or a re-awakening that the current systems of education are simply not working well enough in this area. As a college principal, I welcome the government's shift to recognising technical education through the recent Technical and Further Education Bill, but a recent over-focus on skills development and the pursuit of league table aspirations has left many educational settings woefully ill-equipped to provide the depth of education that many, if not all, young people actually need with regard to resilience and mental health.

Recently I delivered a Ted Talk where I wrote my love letter to education, claiming we had particularly lost our way around issues of wellbeing, resilience and happiness. My argument is that looking after a young person’s mental and physical health and equipping them with the mental health literacy and self-possession to live a rich and fulfilled life is an investment in their very nature of being human – skills that we all are guaranteed to need.  

‘Radical shifts are needed’

Colleges have seen a massive increase, of more than 85 per cent, in the mental health needs of students, according to Ian Ashman, president of the Association of Colleges. Mr Ashman warned that we are heading to “a crisis point in mental health”. He said: “It is no longer an issue about which we can play lip service. The government has a moral, legal and economic obligation to make sure there is proper mental health support provided to everyone across the country.”

Radical shifts are required from three directions. Firstly, public policy, particularly in education, needs to resist academic league tables as the only measure of good educational outcomes, and recognise that wellbeing is a valid outcome.

Secondly, there needs to be movement within the education system, creating a shared strategy from early years education through to post-doctoral study in respect to wellbeing, adapting shared approaches in terms of leadership but also research, and most importantly curricula and pedagogy.

Thirdly, there needs to be a cultural shift over time with parents and students that wellbeing and good mental health are as important as maths, English and certainly than more marginal subjects like geography.

Mental health and wellbeing should be up front and centre in this election year, as the solutions rest in political philosophy and manifesto commitments that need to occur first before practice will change. Some initial pledges have been made around an additional 10,000 NHS mental health staff from the Conservatives.

Labour’s shadow mental health minister Barbara Keeley said the Conservatives had “not delivered on their promise to give mental health the same priority as physical health”.

In the run-up to the election, education debate thus far has been solely centred on the cash invested into schools and the types of education settings, whether free schools, University Technical Colleges, academies or grammar schools.

Disappointingly, little if anything has been said around what actually happens within them, other than the misinformed sideshow of class sizes. When will parliamentary parties of any colour recognise that there needs to be a restating of the purpose of education for our society, and be bold enough to amplify an educational philosophy as part of manifesto pledges?

None of the parties have broken cover on how a joined-up approach between health, education and welfare systems could be developed to have real influence and impact in this area. The evidence coming from governmental bodies such as Public Health England is clear: the current government has only had a stop-start approach to young peoples’ mental health support, and has merely dipped their toes into "character education".

Being brave enough to call our politicians out on how we can build capacity and resilience in future generations and inspire them to live flourishing lives has never been more vital. 

Stuart Rimmer is chief executive at East Coast College. He tweets at @coachinception

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