'We need to redefine the term "mental health" in schools and challenge perceptions'

One teacher-writer sets out the biggest barriers stopping schools from effectively tackling children's mental health problems

Thomas Rogers

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As I write this, I’m at home with an infected knee. I had no hesitation in calling in sick today because of the fact that I could hardly move my left leg and was in lots of pain; I certainly can’t drive. However, had I woken up wishing I was dead and wanting to cry, would I have done the same thing? Would I have honestly called in and said: “I’m feeling really depressed today, it’s a down day, I won’t make it”?

Would you?

Picture a scenario; two people walk into a room and sit down in front of you. They are identical. The first says: “I have cancer.” How do you react? What emotions do you feel? The second says: “I have a serious mental illness.” How do you react? Is it the same emotional response or different?

Do you react to the words, “I’m a paranoid schizophrenic,” with fear, pity, paranoia, mistrust or with sympathy, warmth, understanding and empathy?

Perhaps our collective response to these statements helps us to anecdotally surmise where we are as a society when it comes to mental health. It is my opinion, and I must reiterate – this is a personal opinion – that we are still some way away from establishing parity of understanding between the mental and physical ailments. And I don’t think we can truly hope to dedicate ourselves as fully as we may want to the task at hand; supporting our young people through a mental health crisis.

So, that’s the first challenge: challenging perceptions.

There are two ways to do this; raising awareness that mental health issues are far spread and “normal”, and secondly, increasing the understanding of what constitutes a mental health issue, particularly amongst teachers and others working with children. Prince Harry has done a great job on the former just recently but on the latter, there is still much work to be done.

And this brings us to the second challenge; redefining “mental health”. I’ll come to how we might do this later but, first, why do we need to reboot our definition? Mainly because “mental health” is a relatively new concept, and has been overly simplified, when in fact it’s just about the most complex thing in the world.

When someone in school says: “This child has mental health issues," what are your first thoughts? Depression? Self-harm? Suicidal?

Or do you think: “Oh, that child must be just experiencing things a little differently at the moment.” Often, sadness can touch some people more than others. I’ve always wondered why some people feel everything whereas others feel, well, very little. Sensitivity can lead to depression, over-thinking and so on but it’s a character trait and not necessarily a negative one. It just means that person is wired differently. This is one small example of someone who could be classified as having a “mental health” issue who is just different from the majority.

'Damaging connotations'

The label “mentally ill” still seems to carry with it damaging connotations – many associated with weakness. However, many people labelled as having mental health issues happen to be among the strongest people in the world, the most courageous. I always think of Winston Churchill, a man who regularly confined himself to his bed when the “black dog” kicked in but a man of immense personal conviction, ability and determination. The list would be endless of those who showed brute strength; mentally and physically, when battling an illness in their minds.

Some people won’t come forward and say they are experiencing certain feelings because they don’t want to accept the labels that come with it, primarily the one that implies they are too weak to cope, or be trusted. This may be true in some cases but in an equal number, absolutely not. We need nuance in our thinking and not: “This person says X so therefore is Y." The mind is the most complex of devices; let’s treat it so.

Adults feel this stigma and so do children. This is backed up by the research. In 2012, the Department of Health released results of surveys that mapped people’s attitudes towards those with mental health problems. They found that over half of people said they would feel uncomfortable talking to an employer about their mental health; this had actually increased from 50 per cent in 2010 to 55 per cent in 2012. Similarly, whilst the majority (64 per cent) of people said they would feel comfortable talking to a friend or family member, the proportion saying they would be uncomfortable climbed from 22 per cent in 2011 to 27 per cent in 2012.

How sad.

Teachers need training. They need intense, well-funded and specialist training to be able to appreciate the human mind, personalities and how these things work together. Not because teachers are stupid – they are actually some of the most intelligent people in the world, often on an emotional level – but because tackling this stuff will often be new, especially to those who have never lived with a mental health problem themselves. Some schools in Warrington are leading the way in this, but it would be great to see more doing the same.

We also need more mental health professionals in schools working with children. And I mean professionals, health professionals. “Youth workers” and “mentors” are great but are often not equipped to diagnose and work through seriously difficult medical issues. We need more psychologists and psychiatrists. We need less happy-clappy “buy-ins” proclaiming they will alter the mindsets of disaffected children through catchphrases and an injection of adrenaline-fuelled happiness in just one day. This is just not good enough and grazes the surface of these deep issues.

Finally, and this is where many might disagree; teachers are primarily teachers and classrooms must be for teaching. So, while I do strongly feel that services in schools need a drastic reboot on mental health, I also believe that they should be kept as separate from “Periods 1-5” as possible. Children are primarily there to learn and teachers to teach. Anything different would be like playing Cristiano Ronaldo as a centre-back for half of every match – a waste.

We need different professionals doing different jobs at different times. That requires so much more than money and funding. This is about hearts and minds as much as projects and policy. With the election on the horizon, what are our party leaders saying about this? So far, very little.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is a history teacher

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