THE BLOG

Mental Health Education At School Could Have Prevented My Deepest Moment Of Despair

22/11/2016 07:59
Photography by Elliot Wagland

Earlier this year I visited a secondary school to give a talk about mental health.

Whenever such a talk finishes pupils will always approach me to share their own experiences.

On this particular day, a 16-year-old boy came up to talk to me.

"I'm really struggling at the moment. But I'm never going to talk to anyone about it," he said.

"That's ok to be struggling," I told him, "but why do you feel you can't speak to anybody at all?"

"Because I'll never get a job," he replied. "My friend told me that if you go to a counsellor it goes down on your CV and its the first thing employers will see. No-one's going to give me a job if they know I've been depressed and suicidal."

Needless to say, a long conversation ensued in which I told him that this wasn't the case, and that he could talk to a counsellor in confidence. He looked stunned, and relieved, when he heard this.

Furthermore, I assured him that what he was currently experiencing didn't have to affect his future career. I reminded him that many successful people, such as Winston Churchill, suffered greatly from depression (or the black dog as he famously termed it.)

"I'm going to make an appointment with the school counsellor," was his final thought as our chat came to a close.

I wish I could say that this was an isolated interaction, but sadly it is a regular occurrence when I visit schools.

So many pupils tell me they're scared to speak about their struggles for fear of the judgement and outcome of that conversation.

I often close my talks at schools by asking pupils how many of them would talk to someone or ask for help if they were experiencing a physical health issue like a bad stomach ache. Almost all of them will raise their hands.

I then ask how many would do the same if they were struggling with something like anxious thoughts or feeling low. Typically just one out of 10 pupils will put their hands up to this.

Fifteen years ago when I was at school I would have done the same. In fact I did hide my mental health issues throughout my time at school, college and university.

I never had any mental health education at school. I didn't even really understand the term mental health to be completely honest.

The only thing we did have one day in a sociology class was a viewing of the Jack Nicholson film, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

When the lesson was over I vividly remember being unable to speak about what I had just witnessed. I took myself to the toilet during the next break and tried to recompose myself.

Is this what it means to be mad? I asked myself. Will I end up in my own version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest?

At that time I was depressed, delusional and hearing a voice in my head that I thought was the devil. I often told myself I was mad. I certainly wasn't going to tell anyone else about it though, especially not after seeing that film.

A few years later I did end up like Jack Nicholson's character R.P. McMurphy, sectioned on a psychiatric ward just weeks away from my 21st birthday. I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and depression.

Just like the pupil I mentioned earlier, I too believed that I would now never get a job. Moreover, I believed I would never leave that hospital and was destined to be ill for the rest of my life.

It took many years to recover. In fact most of my twenties (I am now 29) were spent trying to get well. I still struggle today, but it is manageable now, and I'm able to function relatively well. For a long time though there was little hope for me, both from myself and those around me.

I regularly wonder what difference it would have made if I had had some form of mental health education at school. In fact, just writing that sentence fills me with anger and upset, because I truly believe it could have prevented me from getting to the stage I got to where I tried to kill myself in my deepest moment of despair.

Suicide is now the biggest killer of young people under 35 in our country.

And yet only today we heard the news that the millions of pounds worth of funding for children's mental health services has not been delivered as promised, and that a quarter of all young people with a mental illness are currently being turned away from any help due to cuts.

It is incredibly frustrating. Research shows that 75% of all mental illness begins in adolescence. That figure alone should be enough to prompt a change toward prioritising treatment, as well as prevention.

Recently I visited a primary school where prevention is prioritised, and leading national children's mental health charity Place2Be provides emotional wellbeing support for all pupils, families and staff.

A young boy and girl there, both under the age of 10, spoke openly and movingly of their mental health struggles.

"I used to have really bad anxiety," the boy said, "but since I've had counselling at school I'm loads better. I now tell all my friends about it and help them with their problems too. I don't feel embarrassed about it anymore."

If only every single child and young person who struggles with their mental health could speak these same words.

Every 20 minutes a youngster in this country attempts to take their own life, according to the Samaritans. What will it take for children's mental health to be taken as seriously as their physical health? Physical health education or P.E. is a compulsory part of our school curriculum. Isn't it about time mental health education became a compulsory part of it too?

Jonny Benjamin is a mental health campaigner, broadcaster and vlogger, and a judge for Place2Be's Wellbeing in Schools Awards

Place2Be's Wellbeing in Schools Awards, held on Tuesday 22 November, celebrate and recognise ambassadors of positive mental health and highlight the unique contribution that school communities make to the wellbeing of local communities. For more information, visit Place2Be's site

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