'I'm convinced: mental health must be on the curriculum and teachers need to realise their essential role in teaching it'

23rd April 2017 at 12:00
Yes, we try to cram too much into the curriculum, writes one celebrated head. But mental health isn’t just anything: it’s essential

Perhaps I only follow nice people on Twitter, but I’m struck by how often tweeters combine sympathetic humanity with mischievous humour. Take Tuesday: Prince Harry, with his brother and sister-in-law, launched their bid to improve mental health among young people.

The day after a bank holiday is normally a quiet news day – ideal for breaking a big story, so they chose well. Unfortunately, the prime minister chose the same day for her announcement of a general election. As a tweet I enjoyed noted, “that worked well, then.”

Actually, it did. The royals succeeding in making waves. The mental health agenda is a bandwagon starting to roll. It needs to.

Indeed, there’s an aspect of this powerful imperative on which I’ve been forced to change my mind. Hell, if Theresa May can u-turn, it's no big deal if a long-in-the-tooth headteacher has a change of heart.

I have signed the petition launched by the Shaw Mind Foundation demanding that the government makes mental health education compulsory in primary and secondary schools.

Fighting the stigma

I didn't do that lightly. Anyone who reads my Tes blogs will know that I am driven to fury every time government or a pressure group decides that schools should take on the task of tackling yet another social ill. I disapprove strongly of cramming more and more into the school curriculum.

With mental health, though, it all comes together. For too long our society, of which schools are a reflection, has been frightened to go there. The stigma remains powerful: and if students and parents have been frightened to talk about such issues, teachers have been equally reticent in engaging with them.

It’s changing, finally. Prince Harry's statement – that he had suffered such distress because he had never talked about the loss of his mother when he was 12 – is important because bereavement is something that can strike any of us.

We may convince ourselves that other mental issues – anxiety, lack of self-esteem, eating or behavioural disorders, the whole gamut indeed – are things that “only happen to other people”, but bereavement is part of the human condition. So Prince Harry, in talking so honestly about his troubles, has engaged with every member of the human race – an important step.

Presumably it was orchestrated: but significantly recently The New York Times published an open letter from 35 clinical psychologists and clinical psychiatrists calling for compulsory mental health education in schools.

The founder of Shaw Mind Foundation, Adam Shaw, is a businessman who has huge success despite significant mental health difficulties. It is his passion, above all, that has led to the petition gaining well over 60,000 signatures already. Adam and I met a couple of months ago, and we argued. I was rehearsing my old grievances, listed above, about things being shoehorned into the school week.

After all, schools are already concentrating hard on, for example, helping children to build the resilience necessary to render them successful learners and, ultimately, adults who can cope with life’s slings and arrows. So do we need that petition?

We could be heroes

It wasn't Adam alone who convinced me. The government's initial response to the petition was the kind of answer I might normally be pleased to read:

“We want mental health to be an everyday concern in all institutions. Schools should decide how to teach pupils about mental health developing their own curriculum to reflect the needs of their pupils.”

Amen to that. We don't a Westminster apparatchik telling us what to teach and how.

But in this case, absolutely against the usual thrust of my thinking, I believe that, however we determine best to teach the necessary knowledge and understanding of mental health to the children in our individual schools, there should be a degree of compulsion which insists that we don't just sit there and discuss it, but (me as much as you) get off our backsides and do something.

Adam said on Tuesday’s BBC News: “Teachers need to be our heroes in this.” He was right.

We can argue later about the details of how we frame any compulsion and satisfy its requirements. For now, please just sign the petition.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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