Recently, UK schools have started introducing Mindfulness classes, in order to ‘help teenagers’ mental fitness’. Although there is little empirical evidence to prove that exercises such as these make any difference, it is still early days. The classes are being treated as an experiment to see if these mindfulness exercises can protect young people from mental illness.
But we must ask ourselves, are these experimental classes enough to promote good mental health?
Knowledge is power
Compulsory education about mental health needs to be introduced in the curriculum in order to empower young people with understanding concerning mental health, and to help get rid of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Secondary school education informs young people about drugs, sex and various physical illnesses, so why is mental health so often brushed aside? I definitely did not receive any education concerning mental health, and society is rife with misconceptions about mental illness. This needs to be tackled in schools.
Growing up is hard enough as it is, which is partly due to a lack of understanding about life, society and, most troubling, one’s own thoughts. According to a government report on ‘Mental health and behaviour in schools’, one in ten children and young people aged 5 to 16 have a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder, and around one in seven has less severe problems. Young people deserve to understand their own minds and bodies, as well as each other’s. And yet so many young people struggling with their mental health suffer in silence, because they are ashamed or fear being judged.
Training for staff
In addition, all teachers need to know how to spot the early signs of mental health conditions and how to take action if they do think a student is suffering. Although many schools do offer training, particularly for support staff, in a survey; 59% of teachers said that their schools did not devote enough time and resources to mental health, 45% said mental health training had been inadequate and 32% said they had not received any training at all.
A change in curriculum
A recent study has also found that the ‘over-focus’ on exams in secondary schools is causing an increase in mental health problems and self-harm amongst students. This suggests that the actual structure of the education system is not set up to care for students’ mental wellbeing. And, unfortunately, this study is persuasive. I personally am aware of many individuals who have had mental health conditions triggered by exams and the pressure put on young people in education today.
This problem makes initiatives such as the Mindfulness classes seem somewhat redundant. How much difference are classes going to make if the school curriculum itself is causing young people to suffer from poor mental health?
So how do schools tackle the problem of poor mental health in young people? In my opinion, the best way to tackle this problem is from multiple angles; more effective and extensive training for staff, well-structured and accessible mental health lessons for students, additional support for students with diagnosed mental health conditions and ultimately a change in curriculum. Articles about mindfulness classes and other strategies seeking to improve mental health in schools demonstrate that schools are trying to make progress, but are these new developments enough?