Five difficult questions pupils ask about mental health – and how to answer them

29th August 2017 at 14:30
Mental health expert Natasha Devon offers her go-to guide to help teachers provide the best support for students when it comes to mental health

The new academic year is almost upon us and that leaves just enough time for me to slip in another "tip-y" column for you to arm yourself with as you venture into it.

This week, I’m outlining what are, in my experience, some of the most common and thorny questions young people ask about mental health in PHSE lessons/form time/randomly midway through a trigonometry lesson/in the school corridor/when you’re trying to have a wee, as well as how I answer them:

Is it true people have more mental health issues these days, or are we just talking about it more?

The answer is probably. A bit of both. It’s certainly true that neither learning difficulties nor mental illnesses are anything new, however much the Daily Mail might try to persuade us otherwise.

People have always experienced anxiety, depression and addiction issues but, because they lived in a different sort of society, it showed itself in a different way*. Self-harm, for example, seems like it has sprung up out of nowhere over the past 10 years. That isn’t quite true – a small group of people have self-harmed throughout the ages – but arguably because self-harm is so talked about now, it seems like an "acceptable" way to express the feelings of distress, anxiety or sadness which would always have been there.

*You can talk about differences in the way mental health is discussed and treated throughout the world at this point, if you have time and draw on any expertise from overseas pupils in the room.

Additionally, British people have always had what’s called a "stiff upper lip". That means that, as a nation, we aren’t known for acknowledging or talking about our emotions. Although most people now understand that having depression isn’t a sign of "weakness", it’s still taking time to address that stigma, which has been part of our culture for so long. In the past, people might not have felt able to "admit" they had a mental illness, meaning we don’t have an accurate idea of how many people were affected by it.

Note: This is a long and complicated answer. People write whole books about it. So at this stage I usually throw in a funny anecdote about my Nan, who is an Eastender, and all the quirky little euphemisms she and her friends had for mental illness, just so students don’t get bored and lose interest.

Having said that, there are lots of reasons why, in the opinion of many experts, mental health problems are getting worse in the modern world. Things like overcrowding, technology, working long hours and even celebrity culture can be said, when you look into them, to affect your mental health for the worse. If you’re interested in this, I really recommend listening to Russell Brand’s Under the Skin podcasts on YouTube.

Wouldn’t it be better if we could work out a way to deal with this by ourselves?

Humans are pack animals. That’s why John Donne famously said "no man is an island". We were designed to have so-called "flaws" so we would need each other and live in communities, which, in turn, has meant we have survived to this point (despite being a bit rubbish in terms of strength, speed, etc, when compared with, say, a lion).

It would, therefore, be impossible to deal with everything yourself. Living is about gaining support and knowledge from the people around you to help you navigate this daft thing we call life as successfully as you can.

Note: At this point, if you want, you can revisit the "stiff upper lip" thing and discuss how, in a society where "seeking help" is still frowned upon, it’s actually an act of strength to speak out. I particularly recommend this technique with boys.

If you look at nature, women are pretty and stay at home and men are protectors, so isn’t society exactly as it’s meant to be, in evolutionary terms?

You’d be surprised how often I’m asked this. I blame alt-right YouTubers. I was once asked this by a Year 9 boy at a particularly affluent, high-performing, single-sex school where, in the words of a member of staff, the pupils have "a vested interest in maintaining the status quo". This is what I said:

I think your problem is you are confusing humans with monkeys."

This is what I wish I’d said:

The problem with pop anthropology is that a lot of the time it doesn’t give human beings credit for being anything other than chimps in shoes. It’s also invariably written by affluent white men who, whether consciously or not, want to affirm the aspects of social etiquette which benefit them, thus making the whole thing an exercise in confirmation bias.

The brilliance of being a human is that we are intellectual, spiritual and emotional and we have, certainly in the West, evolved to stage where life isn’t just a fight for survival any more. This has, if I may borrow a quote from Sex and the City, given us "the luxury to design our own lives". We can choose the rules of our society. And, personally, I would prefer to live in a society where things are fair and everyone has freedom of choice and equal opportunity. I’m sure you agree.

How do you know if you have a mental illness?

It’s really important not to self-diagnose. You can look up the symptoms of almost anything online and convince yourself you have it. That’s why we have doctors.

You’d know if you needed to go to the doctor by how much of your head-space was being taken up by your issue. Sadness, anxiety and insecurity are all totally normal feelings. If, however, you are feeling anxious for most of the day, or it’s affecting you to the extent that you can’t function, then you might have what’s called an anxiety disorder.

This sounds scary, but it isn’t. Many people have an "episode" of severe anxiety in their lives and then never have it again. Others have more long-term conditions, but, ultimately, it’s just the same as having diabetes. Your mental health is part of who you are and something you have to be aware of and acknowledge, but it doesn’t define who you are.

What should I do to help my friend?

A friend has two jobs. The first is to listen without judgment. This is trickier than it sounds. Proper listening isn’t just waiting for your turn to speak in the conversation. It’s really trying to understand what the other person means. Use open questions such as "what does that feel like?" to help hone this skill.

Your second job is to point your friend in the direction of further support and give them a push towards it. You might think they really need to tell their parents, for example. Volunteer to be on the end of the phone if they want to talk about how that conversation went.

Now, here is the important bit. If your friend had a heart attack, you might put them in the recovery position and call an ambulance. You wouldn’t say, "Fetch me a scalpel!" That is because you are not a qualified surgeon. Mental health is no different. You cannot fix your friend’s problems. You also cannot force them to seek help. If you have completed steps one and two, you have done everything you can.

And, school staff, everything I have said above applies to you, too. 

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner, and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets as @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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