As of last year financial education has officially been embedded in the UK school curriculum. Realising that poor financial awareness has an impact on the whole of society, the government has decided it should be compulsory for learn how to manage their money.
Physical education became compulsory in schools over 100 years ago and is continually being improved in terms of teaching children about the value of nutrition and exercise. We now recognise that lifestyle related diseases such as obesity and diabetes are one of the main threats to the health of the future generation.
We recognise both financial awareness and physical health as areas in need of greater education to create a sustainable future for our young people. That's fantastic, but there is still a gaping hole in our curriculum which has a potentially huge impact on society for generations to come.
Mental illness, particularly depression, has been predicted to be one of the major health burdens of the coming decades. Considering that depression is one of the main causes of chronic illness in the developed world, it baffles me that we are still not arming our children with a very important, arguably the MOST important, tool to help navigate them through their adult years. That is to give children and young people an understanding of their mental health.
Let's face it, life is more confusing for young people growing up now than it was 50 years ago. Freedom of choice, juxtaposed with high competition for jobs, more pressure than ever before to decide what you want to do in life, early in life, and on top of that a million different information sources and stimuli that could overload even the most mature brain, let alone one still trying to process the world around them. (phew!) So shouldn't we be equipping our children with the tools they need to deal with this spaghetti junction of different influences?
Whilst there is a growing emphasis for mental health support in schools this mainly focuses on providing support for the estimated 850,000 children with existing mental illness, rather than providing general mental health education for all pupils. Of course it is important for children with mental illness, or at high risk of mental illness, to have the right support, but this has to be part of a wider education, and open discussion.
Since stigma is still an issue even in today's society, we should be teaching ALL children to understand a range of emotions including mental illness from a young age. Being aware that feeling sad or low or anxious is nothing to feel ashamed of could help young people to open up, and prevent them developing into something more serious in later years. I am not saying that young children need to be taught an encyclopaedic knowledge of mental illness, but a general understanding of emotions from a young age is very important. Whether this is presented in the form of role play, theatre, or just open conversation.
This is particularly important at secondary school age since it is estimated that 50% of lifetime mental illness first presents itself by the age of 14. Even though this is the case there are often long delays,, sometimes decades, between the person first presenting symptoms and seeking help.
I am not just talking about a few uncertain years of teenage mood swings. I am talking about a potential lifetime cycle of unfulfilled potential and loss of motivation. Of having your life taking away from you before it has even really started. In some cases, we are literally talking about the difference between life and death.Why aren't we tackling mental illness before it begins?
Up until now the government has committed to more 'mental health' support in schools, but this seems to translate as training teachers to identify pupils 'at risk' of developing mental illness. Whilst its true that some children may be more 'at risk' than others, if 1 in 4 people suffer from mental illness in their lifetime,(and in my experience mental illness is pretty indiscriminate), surely all pupils should be given an understanding.
This approach points to a widespread confusion between mental health and mental illness, or in other words, prevention and treatment. Whilst government guidelines also include ' discussing mental health issues as part of the wider curriculum', the reality is that there are only a handful of schools where this actually being done.
It was announced late last year that the PSHE Association would be working with the government 'to help schools know how to teach pupils about mental health', which is a welcome development if it is implemented effectively.
Like any illness or disease, by solely focusing our efforts on treatment, we are never going to tackle the underlying cause. By simply providing one on one support for children or young people suffering from mental illness, we may be helping them individually, but we are doing nothing to tackle stigma or increase awareness for the next generation. In fact, by taking a child out of the classroom, and further separating them signalling they are somehow different from their fellow pupils, we may be inadvertently maintaining that stigma.