Current estimates suggest that one in ten children have a clinically diagnosed mental health or behavioural problem, so it’s not hard to see why the idea of “mental health literacy” – or mental health lessons in schools – is going mainstream.
Most recent to these discussions are in Canada and India, where there’s been debate about how to give young people the knowledge and skills to monitor and manage their own mental well-being. In the UK, a recent report concluded that mental health should be taught in UK schools as a core skill – just like literacy or numeracy.
Social and emotional learning is already an area of rapid and profound innovation, with many programmes already being trialled in schools – including work carried out by my colleagues at the Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation for the Education Endowment Foundation. But of course, educating young people about mental health and well-being is no simple task. Below are my top six recommendations we as educators, parents and citizens should think about before introducing mental health programmes in schools.
1. Stay positive
As a society, mental health needs to mean more to us than the presence and absence of disorders and distress. A lot of public health and safety education issued to young people is framed in terms of the avoidance of threat – so children are taught the reason to learn the green cross code is to avoid accidents and death. But we can’t approach mental health education in the same way.
Conversations about mental health need to start on the front foot by introducing positive benefits. And concepts like emotional intelligence and mindfulness can also be shown to be positive skills which can be honed and used across a range of situations.
2. Shine a light into dark corners
On the flipside, we want young people to seek help and to talk about problems as they arise. So it is necessary to introduce an understanding of different types of mental health problems, what their causes might be and how they are treated.
Here, educators may fear introducing students to labels that students may use disparagingly against one another, or will then search for online. Clearly there is no easy answer here and encouraging safe internet use is a kindred problem for schools. But ultimately, the hope is that by shining a light on a mental health condition, or on a group prone to poor mental health, related stigmas might dissipate in the long run.
3. Think about the teachers
Some topics, such as bullying, will be familiar territory for educators, and schools will often have structures in place to prevent and respond to bullying. But other important factors, such as poverty and ill-health of family members, may be more difficult for teachers to discuss. This is because these topics may only affect some students, and could make these pupils feel embarrassed or isolated.
Teachers may also worry that by introducing topics like anxiety and depression, some children might become upset and worried – and the programme might actually induce stress. While this is an understandable concern in the short-term, the challenge is to think long-term and to equip that student with the ability to cope with stress when it arises.
4. Let children know all feelings are okay
A key message in an effective mental health education programme is that “it’s okay to feel down”. Being mentally healthy isn’t just about feeling happy, it’s also the ability to notice changes in our own moods and to accept those ups and downs as natural and not something to be feared.
Another challenge is how to engage young people, particularly happy young people, in mental health education. But if from very early in school children learn that, like reading and counting and exercise and games, self-care is a normal part of school work, it will be normalised from an early stage.
5. Make it a team game
Another idea is to make mental healthcare into a team game. So children start to think “even if I’m mentally healthy, maybe my friends aren’t”. By encouraging generosity and mutual support, we encourage helping behaviours that can impact both the giver and the recipient positively.
This is another reason to discuss the causes and factors that increase the risks of poor mental health. Because young people who are better informed are better able to look out for one another and provide support and encouragement through their peer groups.
6. Who should teach?
A final things to consider is who should actually deliver the social and emotional education. A recent suggestion proposed a whole-school approach to mental health, which casts school psychologists as coordinators. But school psychologists are often in high demand and work across multiple schools.
Schools and teachers may also be concerned that the implementation of new programmes for social and emotional learning will add to already large workloads. This points to a need for a coordinated strategies at regional and national levels with appropriate funding attached.