Schools can and should be contributing positively to the mental health and wellbeing of our students at a time when mental health problems may be experienced by a shocking one in five adolescents in any given year.
Business leaders expressed the same worry at a recent hospitality industry conference I attended, voicing concern about the rise in absences and the resulting drop in productivity largely caused by deteriorating mental health among employees.
Schools are also concerned at statistics that keep emerging about mental health: globally, a leading cause of illness is depression, while suicide is the most common cause of death in under-35s. Many young people simply aren’t equipped with the resources they need to cope after they leave school and enter the world of work.
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There are a lot of things that schools should be doing to help support their most vulnerable students. Young people thrive on having positive role models and values to aspire to, and nowhere is better for this than school.
Talking about it
The conversation about mental health is less taboo now, but lots of young people still struggle to open up to others. Schools should be a safe space where students can express their feelings without fear. Three-quarters of adults with a diagnosable mental health problem will experience their first symptoms by age 24; in an ideal world, young people would be made aware of the importance of talking about their feelings well before symptoms appear.
Mental health and wellbeing can be normalised through activities designed to dispel any stigma and bring the school community together. Our school has introduced the Love Your Mind project, run by final-year students. A group of students and two teachers is chosen every year to raise awareness of mental health within the school. By hosting talks and engaging in conversations with their peers, they show how students can take action to protect their own wellbeing.
Knowing the signs
Schools must always keep a watchful eye on all students for signs of mental illness. These can range from relatively harmless symptoms such as failing to take care of their personal appearance to the more obvious signs of talking or joking about suicide.
Our students and staff are supported in learning how to carry out mental health "first aid" by spotting symptoms, showing that they are happy to help, knowing how to offer support in a sympathetic way and identifying where they can seek professional help.
You are what you eat
Another often overlooked influence on mental health and wellbeing is our students’ diets. What we eat is intrinsically linked to how we feel – a diet high in fruit, vegetables, unprocessed grains and fish, for example, can cut the risk of depression markedly.
We can preach to our students about the importance of getting their five a day, but often it doesn’t sink in unless realised through practical methods. Equipping pupils with the most basic of life skills, cooking, allows them to take care of their own wellbeing by creating wholesome, healthy meals.
I recently began a cooking project with my S6 (final-year) students, during which we cook our lunch for an hour and a half each Wednesday morning before sitting down and tucking into our culinary creations together. This makes our lessons truly come to life and can be invaluable to students – it may be their first experience of cooking a proper meal.
Cooking communally puts pleasure, conversation, camaraderie, connection and education at the heart of the activity, and challenges our young people to think more about the food they are eating. Coming together like this also promotes positive mental health, by prompting conversations around the dinner table and forging closer bonds.
Steps like these can have a huge impact on young people’s mental health: simply providing a safe space where students know they are valued, respected and cared for can prompt them to share worries they might otherwise hold back.
By providing their students with what they need to care for their own wellbeing at such a crucial time in their lives, schools can help pupils be so much better prepared to prevent poor mental health in future.
Lesley Franklin is principal of George Heriot's School in Edinburgh