3 children in every classroom now have a diagnosable mental health disorder according to the children's charity Young Minds.
I regularly visit schools teaching young people how to take care of their wellbeing and hear from teachers how they are struggling to cope with the increasing problem of poor mental health among students. Young people's mental health is a hot topic, with regular reports telling us that services are underfunded and unable to cope with the demand. This leaves schools at a loss as to how to help some of the most vulnerable students.
Health and youth professionals say that we need to invest in more therapeutic services to treat young people with mental health problems, but I don't believe that this is the long-term answer. This mirrors our reactive approach to most problems in our society, where we wait until something becomes a big problem and then dive in to fix it. I have seen this reactive approach time and time again, working in children's services where a child hasn't been allocated a social worker until it becomes a child protection case.
From spending time in schools I am also seeing that the environment and systems do not promote good wellbeing for students or teachers. I was speaking with a group of GCSE students recently about the benefits of eating well during exam time. Whilst chatting with the teacher after the session she told me she had not eaten anything that day yet as she had been too busy (it was now 2pm). How can we promote good wellbeing in young people, when we as adults are not taking care of ourselves? It just seems backwards to me.
I hear the panic in schools where teachers say they don't feel equipped or trained to deal with these issues, where mental wellbeing is put into a box that can only be handled by 'specialist' hands. This is creating fear amongst teachers and is sending a message to young people that they need an expert to cure or fix them. It leaves young people lacking trust in themselves and feeling they have no control of their happiness and wellbeing, which in my experience fuels anxiety. There are certainly times where young people need specialist help, but I feel there is an increasing panic around young people dealing with anxiety and difficult emotions, which are being labelled as mental health problems.
I see so many young people who feel they have no control over their lives and when things go wrong they have no trust in themselves to be able to resolve things. We need to give them the knowledge that their mental wellbeing is not fixed and that they have the capacity to change this in the same way they can change their bodies through exercise or practicing a new skill.
By giving them information on how their mind works and the regular actions they can take to keep it healthy, helps them understand themselves better and can be massively reassuring. It puts the power back in their hands and gives them the confidence to trust that they can deal with the tough stuff. If we can put our time and energy into this area, I believe this can prevent many young people from developing mental health problems. But this would need to be a whole school approach, where teachers are able to actively take care of their own health and wellbeing. Then they can communicate a genuine belief to students that our mental wellbeing is something we must actively take care of as part of our overall health.