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'Transform school culture to boost mental health'

The commitment to mandatory mental health education in schools is welcome – but it is not enough, says Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon, World Mental Health Day, mental health

The commitment to mandatory mental health education in schools is welcome – but it is not enough, says Natasha Devon

Last week, Damian Hinds announced that there would be mandatory mental health education in all primary and secondary schools across England from 2020. The education secretary's proposal states that children should be taught how to be more "resilient" (anyone else growing weary of that word?), the benefits of healthy eating and keeping fit and how to spot the signs that one of their classmates is struggling with their mental wellbeing. 

This caused the inevitable cries of delight on social media, meaning that its work as a piece of positive PR for the DfE was effectively done. Some of my respected colleagues in mental health campaigning declared it to be a victory for our community. A triumph. A testament to all of our hard work. Everyone seemed pleased. Everyone, that is, except me. 

Back in my early days as the government's "mental health champion" (an appointment which was announced with a similar amount of fanfare in 2015, along with £1.5 billion of funding which, it transpired, was not to be ringfenced), something a teacher said really struck a chord with me. I had been wheeled out for some event or other and, still incredibly green and therefore optimistic about the whole situation, was attempting to convey the extent of the government's commitment to tackling poor mental health in young people using a range of projects, such as peer support and pilot schemes to strengthen relationships between schools and child and adolescent mental health services (anyone know how those are going, by the way?). A teacher in the audience responded with: "I suppose all of these endeavors are like applying Factor 50, but no one is turning down the heat...". 

I have kept going back to that remark in the years since, because I've rarely heard anything which so squarely hits the nail on the head. Knowledge and awareness can only provide so much respite in the context of an environment where self-care is impossible to practise and medical care impossible to access. 

In numerous charity-led surveys of young people, academic anxiety consistently ranks in the top three reasons for poor mental wellbeing. If my work in approximately three schools per week all over the UK is anything to measure by, this is a relatively new phenomenon. When I first began this job a decade ago, body image worries, bullying and peer relationships were the primary concerns of the 12- to 18-year-olds I surveyed. Since the incremental implementation of Gove's education reforms since 2010, the narrowing of the curriculum and relentless testing and assessment have, it would appear, taken their toll.

School pressure affects mental health

The idea that this will in any way "improve" academic standards has been thoroughly debunked by numerous education experts. Any reported rise in numeracy and literacy probably has more to do with the higher numbers of children being excluded from school than a genuine improvement in their overall intelligence. There is, apparently, absolutely no justification for increasing the amount of stress being placed on school pupils other than the old chestnut, always uttered by people who don't understand that the needs of a growing brain are radically different from an adult one – "life is stressful". 

Furthermore, the narrowing of the curriculum has inevitably meant that subjects that are consistently proven to have a positive therapeutic benefit, not only in recovering from mental illness but also in attaining and maintaining good mental health, are given less funding and less time. These include art, music, and drama – all of which give young people a means of exploring and exorcising difficult emotions. They also improve confidence and self-esteem and, according to a report by the APPG on Creativity published last year, improve brain chemistry. 

The same can be said of sport and physical activity. Hinds' proposed "reforms" state that pupils should be taught the value of these, but not when they will have the opportunity to put that knowledge into practice. The average state school child does one hour of physical education per week, with Gove famously refusing to sign a mandate which would have increased this to a (still not enough) two hours. It's a similar state of affairs with nutrition: there is apparently no action being taken to ensure a basic level of quality in school and college canteens. All the knowledge on nutrition in the world won't help you if you're hungry and your options are restricted to fried chicken and chips. 

Peer support, in this context, is also a dubious concept. Whilst there is much evidence to show that identifying mental health difficulties in their infancy and existing in an environment where it is acceptable to talk about them has a measurable benefit, this somewhat loses its value if there is nowhere for pupils to signpost to in the event that the needs of the person being supported go above and beyond "prevention". Camhs have been slashed by a conservative estimate of £80 million since 2010. Peer supporters aren't a substitute for therapy and should never be expected to bear the burden of "fixing" a mental health issue, any more than they would if their peer had diabetes or a broken leg. Good peer support systems encourage pupils to report to teachers and there the buck will, under the current system, stop. Which brings me on to my most important point.

Hinds' press release made absolutely no mention of how any of this will be resourced or funded. Our education secretary is, in this situation, basically the equivalent of a reality TV star who appears on daytime TV to talk about how to do the perfect winged eyeliner before finally declaring, "This should be taught in schools!" With less and less time in the school day and rapidly dwindling budgets, is this just another thing teachers will be expected to learn in their own time, free of charge, lest they face the wrath of Ofsted?

In my opinion, the single biggest contributor to poor mental health in pupils is the fact that the adults around them are often struggling themselves. This includes their teachers, 70 per cent of whom, according to a study done by the BBC last year, have had to take time off for a physical or mental health problem they attribute directly to the stress of their job during the past year. To attempt to safeguard the mental health of young people by increasing the stress placed on their teachers in this way is, therefore, to say the least, short-sighted. 

I don't mean to sound unduly grumpy. It should go without saying that I support greater awareness of and more freedom to discuss mental health at school (and indeed everywhere). Yet I also want that to be done in a way that is well thought out and comprehensive, and that spearheads the fundamental change of culture within schools which, it is becoming increasingly clear, is so urgent and crucial. 

Only this kind of dramatic reform can come anywhere close to solving the crisis in mental health in young people. After all, as a teacher responded on Twitter to the government's announcement on mental health education: "A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing". 

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 @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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