Why mental illness should be taught in schools is one of those questions that I hope will one day become redundant. It will be such an obvious priority that people will be aghast that there was a time when it was not taught to all children as part of a full and well-rounded education.
There are several reasons why greater education and understanding of mental health and mental illness are needed across society, starting in schools.
Mental health is something that we all have, like physical health. It can be good or bad, and it can be well maintained or neglected. Neglect will not always lead to major problems, but it will not help and it will make you more vulnerable to difficulties. Taking good care of your mental health will not make you immune to issues, but it may well make them easier to deal with if and when they do arise.
Like physical health, there are things that can be taught to overcome difficulties and build mental strength and resilience. Many of these are obvious when you know them, but coming from a generation where mental health was very much a taboo when I grew up, it took me many years to learn for myself things that would have been of enormous help to me. They would not have stopped me from becoming mentally ill, but they would have been of huge assistance in recognising when I did and dealing with the consequences.
We teach physical health at school from day 1. Here in the UK, online PE lessons from a well-known fitness guru were one of the first things to be established in the lockdown. We understand that children must learn about the importance of looking after their bodies. Yet we continue to neglect the need for mental self-care to the same degree.
I would expect most 10 year olds who cut their finger or who came across someone else with a bleeding wound to know that they should apply pressure and try to stop the bleeding, and that keeping things clean is also important. I suspect that the same children when faced with a mental health issue in someone else would likely be frightened and have no idea what to do, and if struggling mentally themselves would not have any understanding of what was happening or that they needed to find help. It is difficult enough to recognise mental illness in yourself as an adult with knowledge of the subject – as a child with no awareness at all, it is all but impossible.
Awareness and recognition, together with eliminating stigma, have a huge role in tackling and improving mental health in our society. Treating something as a taboo and preventing people from talking about it is a sure-fire way to make a situation much worse, yet for many years that is exactly what we did in respect of mental illness. A few key lessons for children and for all of use can make a huge change.
Lessons like mental illness being no more in our control than physical illness. Yes, in a few cases risky actions can cause physical sickness or injury, and the same applies to mental health. Yet we teach children how to avoid physical injury – do not touch hot kettles, keep away from the edge of cliffs. We often do extraordinarily little to help them avoid mental trauma.
Alongside this goes the culture of blaming those with injuries or illness. We would not dream of blaming someone who had contracted or been born with a disease or suffered broken bones in an accident that was in no way their fault. Yet there is a continuing undercurrent in society that those with mental illness are just weak and need to pull themselves together. People with depression are told to just cheer up and choose to be happy – I have had that one many times myself.
It is hard to think of anything worse you can do for someone who is mentally ill than to tell them that they are weak, and it is all their own fault. Many of us are already incredibly good at blaming ourselves for absolutely everything that goes wrong and feeling totally inadequate – we do not need help with that, thank you.
But of course, most mental illness is not something that can be controlled by the sufferer in any way. It can be caused by genetics, by chemical imbalances or by experiences among other things. But like many physical ailments, early identification and treatment can make a huge difference to the prognosis in some cases.
The thing with mental illness is that unless you happen to have a brain scan handy (and not always then), it is like the wind – you cannot see the illness itself, just the effects it has. If the ill person is good at covering it up or in denial, and many of us do either or both of those on a regular basis, nobody else may notice for some time. Very often the only way that an early intervention will take place is if the patient themselves seeks help, and that is enormously difficult to do.
Firstly, you must recognise that you have a problem, and none of us likes admitting that. To do this requires using your brain, which is where the problem itself lies, so the chances of you convincing yourself that it is real and needs to be addressed are further diminished. So, you then fall back on your learnt instincts. Unfortunately, many of have learnt that the correct response is that we just need to pull ourselves together and stop showing weakness.
Which brings me back to why mental illness should be taught in schools. It is well known that the lessons we learn when we are very young stick with us. They become ingrained in our minds, which is why things like times tables and spelling are emphasised in the first few years of school.
What a difference it would make if the message that is now widely shared, that it is OK not to be OK and to seek help, were taught from an early age. I know that young children would not understand every aspect and element of that message, but the principle is quite simple. One of the schools that my own children attended had a bench in the playground with a sign inviting anyone feeling sad and lonely to sit there, and some of the older children were tasked with chatting to those that did, including me one day when I sat there by accident!
There is much that can and should be done to help children become more self-aware and to know that they can get help with extreme and difficult thoughts, emotions and so on. A cultural change on this is needed, and the way you achieve that is to start with the very young, so they grow up not knowing anything different.
The greater openness and acceptance of mental illness in much of the world is very welcome. It now needs to become a basic building block of our society, not an add on. The way we do that is to teach it to our children from day one.