We are all painfully aware of the current state of youth mental health. With ever increasing numbers of young people experiencing mental illnesses from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and self-harm, we’re struggling for solutions.

Current thinking is pointing to schools, suggesting that teachers educate students about their mental health in PSHE lessons (Personal, Social and Health Education). Utilising PSHE in mental health education is a good first step, but it’s a mere drop in the ocean when it comes to supporting student mental health.

What does the research say?

Research findings on the current state of youth mental health are pretty galling. A study last year revealed that more than 1 in 5 15-year olds in England said they had self-harmed; that’s at least 6 students in every classroom. The number is three times higher for girls than boys, with NHS data showing that the number of girls treated as inpatients after cutting themselves had quadrupled between 2006-2016, a 285% rise.

In answer to this worrying trend, campaigners have proposed that PSHE lessons be made mandatory, with compulsory education for students on mental health matters. Research would support this proposal, with studies showing that PSHE has a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of young people, with ¾ of students interviewed agreeing the classes help them to look after their own health.

Scrabble tiles arranged to spell out mental health

PSHE is more important than ever

It makes sense. By teaching mental health awareness in schools, we increase understanding student’s understanding of their mental health, enabling them to monitor it, identify mental illness in themselves and peers as well as learn coping strategies. This doesn’t just benefit the one-in-five, this benefits every student in the classroom, who can learn to maintain good mental health habits. What’s more, in normalising these issues from day one, in schools, we remove the stigma that develops around mental illness.

But we’d be making a big mistake by stopping there. While it’s great that we are having these conversations, and bringing mental health up to government policy level, schools cannot carry the full burden of youth mental illness by themselves. School staff are overworked and underfunded as it is, and are not equipped to provide the depth of support that is needed for supporting student mental health.

What’s more, mental health campaigner, Natasha Devon, points out that it’s no coincidence mental health issues have skyrocketed as funding and curriculum time given to sports and the arts have been cut. It’s all well and good putting curriculum time aside for student wellbeing but we cannot then cut the very subjects that provide a real boost in wellbeing. Cuts to the arts only exacerbate the problem.

Schools cannot carry the burden of youth mental illness

It would be a huge failure of the government if their only strategy for supporting student mental health was to place the burden solely on the shoulders of schools. It is an issue far too monumental for schools to bear alone and far too important to approach in a blinkered, one-sided manner. School staff are no replacement for the work of qualified counsellors and therapists.

It would also be incredibly ignorant to support student mental health initiatives while ignoring the declining mental health of teachers, so many of which are currently struggling under workload and accountability measures. Placing yet more responsibility on the shoulders of teachers not only adds to their mounting stress, but also takes time away from performing their job: academic teaching. Teachers are super-heroes, but they’re not super-human.

A young girl sat in a classroom with head resting in hand.

Mental health education isn’t just for the classroom

Schools are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mental health understanding; let’s make mandatory PSHE the gateway to expanding mental health awareness outside the school gates. That means educating parents and employers.

Parents need to be offered information on how to support their children’s mental health from day one because, as Matt Buttery points out in Tes, the mental health intervention offered at school is sadly too late for many. He quotes Conservative MP, James Morris, who stated in a parliamentary debate that “supporting parents better would also save public funds by avoiding the need for more costly interventions at a later stage.”

And what about the workplace and wider society? It would be a massive shame for a new generation of wellbeing-savvy young people to leave school, bursting with all that they’ve learned about mental health, only to face a working world that is dismissive of their wellbeing. So why stop at mandatory student mental health education in schools? Why not roll it out to the workplace with compulsory mental health education and support for working professionals?

When it comes to mental health, education doesn’t have to be confined to the classroom.

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