We don't need to look at rigorous scientific studies to know that the formative years of our lives are hugely important in determining how we will fare later on. How effectively we learn to regulate our emotions and relationships, tolerate distressing situations and view ourselves as lovable and deserving are largely based on the skills, coping mechanisms and beliefs about ourselves that we acquire throughout childhood and adolescence. However much we fret about the pressures faced by children and young people today or how mental health problems amongst this population group are on the rise, we mustn't forget that this time of life is one of huge potential, ripe with opportunity. As well as learning maths, science and Shakespeare, there should be room to learn about resilience in the face of the challenges life throws at all of us, and importantly, how to manage mental health as well as physical health. With between two thirds and three quarters of adult mental illness (besides dementia) being apparent by the age of 18 (Campion et al, 2013), the opportunity for developing proactive responses to mental health difficulties as well as strategies to prevent them occurring in the first place is especially pertinent in this age group.
The last UK epidemiological study in 2005 suggested that 10-20% of under 18s will at any one time have mental health problems significant enough to warrant specialist help, yet the prime way we equip young people for life is through education and pressure to achieve good exam results. The path to a good life we are told is through attainment, qualifications, a salary and paying taxes - not simply doing what we want or enjoy. Whilst we generally recognise as a society that physical health is needed in order to accomplish these things, we still grossly overlook how none of this is possible without an adequate level of mental health.
This raises questions for our education system about both the way we define success, and how we prepare young people to achieve it. Do we want school-leavers to have a good foundation in several subjects, sound grades and the possibility for employment, further training or higher education? Of course we do. But the single-minded pursuit of these goals as the measure of success for individuals and educational establishments is so short-sighted. I only have to look at my experiences at school to see that whilst I couldn't have been more successful on paper with my sweep of A*s, in no way was my school education a success story. When I developed OCD and depression in my mid-teens, I managed to keep it hidden from my school and parents for the best part of the year whilst skiving off in parks and back lanes. I assume my teachers weren't concerned about me being absent for the same reason that they thought it was OK not to stimulate me at all intellectually - because I would get top grades anyway. The result was that as I became more and more isolated and increasingly emotionally distressed, my health deteriorating as I developed severe anorexia, perhaps as an visible expression of the needs that were going unmet in my life. When I left school it was because it wasn't worth the fight of trying to get teachers to understand about my experience or to cooperate with mental health services, or facing confrontation with staff members who had little to no knowledge of eating disorders, who even told me that they thought I wasn't coming to lessons because I believed I was too good to attend and was making the choice not to.
What does it say of our education system if there are people like me who may well be leaving school with good CVs, but are totally unequipped to cope with the basics of life? Being unable to overcome the barriers my condition presented to participation with my peers, I left school with a dread of socialising. I was unable to regulate my emotions, concentrate on anything besides losing weight, or even feed myself. The idea of holding down a job was an impossibility and I even had to turn down my place at University in Cambridge. All this and I was still evaluated as an educational success that reflected favourably on the school as being able to produce 'good results'. If our highest aspiration for our young people is that they are successful academically and have a good prognosis for being contributors to society in economic terms, then we overlook their humanity to a degree that we cannot afford. We need to shift the evaluation of outcomes in education from exam results alone to more holistic, and in my perspective, more valuable results such as being mentally well and better equipped to cope with the whole of life, not just work.
For this to be the case we would need to change the way that education is often for the purpose of jumping through hoops rather than the enjoyment of the process of learning. Extra-curricular activities would need to be encouraged not because they look good on CVs and applications, but rather because they are pleasurable in themselves and beneficial for wellbeing. We would need to see an end to the arts being derided and overlooked in curricula in favour of STEM subjects, leaving less room for creativity and more potential for the erosion of individual enjoyment for many students. We would also need to see space given over for psychoeducation and mental health awareness-raising, which I only wish I had been able to access in my school when I was feeling so desperately alone and abnormal in my struggle with my health.
For me things have changed since then, but it has been a long journey where intervention was anything but early. Now I have made it to Cambridge, 8 years since my first successful application but the first year of those in which I am not severely unwell. The costs of not receiving the support I needed both from my school and from mental health services (which cannot be considered in isolation from each other) have been huge for me, and I hope things are changing for the better. But when I look around at the other freshers on my course - most straight from school - I do wonder just how well equipped they are to be mentally and emotionally resilient, despite their successes in academic terms. I know which one I would choose.