Your Kid’s School Is Killing Their Mental Health


“You have to learn this – you won’t be carrying a calculator around with you everywhere you go!”

In a way, my old maths teacher was right.
I don’t carry around a calculator.
But I have a supercomputer in my pocket.

In much the same way that maths lessons left me reeling with fear and anxiety (not only about my lack of numeracy but also the despondent future that awaited me), modern schooling is doing the same for the next generation.

The whole system is outdated and is focused on skills which are rapidly becoming obsolete.
And this only serves to compound the exponential rise in mental health issues among the youth of today.

The numbers
The statistics make for harrowing reading:
● According to Mind, around half of young people have experienced a traumatic or adverse event – doubling their chances of developing a mental health issue.
● According to the NHS, around 1 in 5 of 8-24-year-olds have a probable mental health disorder. Nearly 1 in 3 experienced some form of anxiety or depression.
● There is a clear link between poor mental health and socio-economic status – 1 in 4 18-24 year olds with a probable mental health disorder have a parent who cannot afford to let them take part in extracurricular activities compared with 1 in 10 for those with a parent who could. Young people in the lowest economic bracket are 4.5 times more likely to experience a serious mental health issue than those in the highest.
● According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health disorders cost the economy 118bn per year.

When looking at these statistics it is also important to remember that they likely only represent the tip of the iceberg – the stigma that still exists around the topic means that many young people are still not comfortable coming forward about their problems.

Now, the education system is not solely to blame for this dire situation.

What else is to blame?

Phone usage, social media in particular, has been proven to have a hugely negative effect on the mental health of young people – especially when it comes to issues such as body dysmorphia and eating disorders. It’s telling that Bill Gates famously prohibited his children from using smartphones.

COVID also has its role to play, with a marked impact on feelings of loneliness and isolation. The government’s handling of the pandemic, along with the ensuing conspiracy theories and lack of trust in our leaders has also served to enhance a sense of hopelessness in the future.

However, even when taking all of that into consideration, the schooling of our children has to be held to account.

Skills at school
The simple fact is that schools are not teaching the skills that will be needed most going forward.
Where are the lessons covering explicit critical thinking?
Are children being taught how to sift through and evaluate the overload of information they are lumbered with daily?

Lessons on communication, teamwork and relationship building?

This gap in education leaves many young people lacking the skills necessary to thrive in the modern world. And they know it.

All of this is further compounded by the sticking plaster approach to mental health.
How effective are the odd PSHE lesson on mental health, an arbitrary campaign on World Mental Health Day and a solitary oversubscribed counsellor (if the school even has one)? In fact, more than a quarter of young people report that there is inadequate provision for mental health in school despite schools being the very place where young people seek help and support first.

The wider problem
This lack of provision has a worrying impact on the lives and education of young people – a 2021 survey conducted by Mind found:
● 96% of young people reported that their mental health had affected their schoolwork at some point.
● 78% of young people said that school had made their mental health worse.
● 56% of school staff identified that young people who didn’t receive support self-harmed.
● 48% of young people told us they had been punished at school for behaviour that was caused by their mental health problems.
● 25% of school staff said they were aware of a young person being excluded from school because of their mental health.
● 70% of young people who experienced racism in school told us their experience had impacted their wellbeing.
And, these problems do not stop at school but have a profound and continuing impact on University life as well. A 2021 study by Accenture of 12,000 university students found:
● 39% said their mental health had declined since beginning university.
● Just over a third (35%) said they were currently facing a mental health challenge.
● One in four of those people had experienced a mental health problem for the first time while at university, but the majority (62%) had experienced mental health problems beforehand.

It is important to note that just as these issues follow young people into university, it only follows that they will continue to plague them in the workplace too. The fact that 62% of those surveyed had already experienced mental health problems, combined with the fact that so many young people seek help from their school first highlights that school is the place for intervention to take place.

This is further compounded by the recent reduction in funding for the Children and Adults Mental Health Service (CAMHS) – a recent article in The Guardian reported waiting times of up to two years for an initial assessment and almost half of applications for treatment for anxiety and depression are rejected. In fact, real-time funding for CAMHS has been reported as having decreased by £700m in real terms. To quote that article:
“The NHS across the UK is understood to be facing an unprecedented crisis of unmeetable demand.”

It is clear that more needs to be done. It cannot fall on teachers to do more – teaching is one of the professions with the highest rates of stress as it is. It is a profession with terrible staff retention rates and one of the highest turnovers – it’s clear that the best teachers are escaping the situation (but that’s an article for another time).

So what can be done?
The first key action that needs to take place is serious ring-fenced investment in mental health provisions for schools.

This cannot come from already stretched-to-breaking school budgets but needs to come from councils and the government as a separate fund. So where could this much-needed money come from?

One possible solution is to encourage engagement from the corporate and business world – after all this crisis is going to have a huge impact on the talent pool for companies to recruit from in the coming years. More collaboration would have a massive impact and would be mutually beneficial.

All the evidence points to the effectiveness of early intervention when it comes to mental health issues and every pound spent early on saves four more being spent down the line.

When considering the £118bn cost to the economy, as identified earlier, this early intervention becomes increasingly important. When we also consider the ongoing impact on university students it becomes clear that this cost of mental health issues isn’t only one of NHS services and policing – it includes lost earnings across the board. From a lack of new SMEs to lost opportunities for young people to an impact on staffing for Fortune 500 companies.

Any money invested needs to be spent on external services which not only develop students’ ability to protect their mental health but also build the soft skills which will be so crucial in the coming decades – resilience, etiquette, teamwork and strategizing.

These services need to provide not only a safe space for young people to speak freely but also the opportunity to develop communication and ways of helping each other.

These services need to be holistic in nature – not treating the core elements of health as separate entities but understanding that skills to protect physical, mental and social health need to be developed in collaboration with each other.

Building bridges
The key concept for me is that of building bridges. In an age where we are supposed to be more connected than ever, we seem to be becoming more and more disparate and separated.
We need services that build connections – bridges across the phases of education, from primary into secondary, secondary onto sixth form and then connecting on into university and the world of work.

We need services which build bridges between students and teachers – offering a middle ground where young people feel comfortable to freely express their feelings about the issues they face.
We need to build bridges between parents/carers and young people – offering opportunities for mutual support and understanding.

We need to (and this is possibly the most important for me) offer spaces for young people to build bridges between themselves – a way for high achievers to connect with those who are struggling, for bullies to talk to the bullied and for young people to be able to feel a part of a wider community but also to recognise that their own insular experience is not unique – that they all have a shared experience.

Experience on the ground
In the school-based project I am a part of we had many powerful examples of this – running sessions in a Tower Hamlets school, we provided a space for open dialogue between students from vastly different backgrounds and facing completely different challenges.

We had students at risk of gang recruitment talking openly with young people in the process of transitioning gender. Outside of this space these groups would never interact (except maybe with hostility) but giving them this platform allowed them to recognise how similar (despite being so different) their experiences are.

They were able to realise the fact that we are all human and all face struggles. They were able to humanise ‘the other’. The experience was hugely profound.

Likewise, the impact we had was huge. In the case of one young student (let’s call them ‘K’) who would turn up every week despite refusing to engage with CAMHS or counselling. Sometimes they would be on their third day without sleep, completely fuelled by energy drinks. At others, we would have to negotiate with the school’s internal seclusion team for them to attend in spite of their isolation, due to being in school with a bottle of vodka.

Completely failed by the system, estranged from parents, and embroiled in a traumatic legal battle regarding custody, they made an attempt on their own life early on during our project – but they came back and kept coming back.

Simply having a space where they felt able to talk freely, without judgement or restrictions, was a huge benefit to them. I’m happy to say that on a recent visit to the school to arrange another run of sessions I saw the student, and they are doing much better – as verified by teaching staff. Now, the credit for that has to be given to the child but there is no doubt in my mind that the support offered by a cost-effective external provision had a huge impact.

More needs to be done
It is stories like this that remind me of the value of such services and the need for more to be implemented.

Whatever shape these services take and however they are delivered one thing is certain – unless something is done quickly we are heading into huge problems in the years to come.

Written by David Corbishley –

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