Mental Health Week: My school told me to just ‘keep smiling’

Rachel Hart argues the case for better mental health education in schools

A recent study found that a quarter of all girls between the critical development ages of 16-24 are likely to be struggling with mental health problems. This meant that at any one time, in my small, single sex secondary school, there were on average 200 girls struggling with issues surrounding their mental health. Yet my school – a top achieving, well renowned grammar school in London – had an abysmal attitude towards managing and helping to maintain good mental health. They often failed to recognise individuals in a holistic way, instead focusing on grades and academic performance. This consequently cultured a common feeling of resentment amidst the memories and experiences of students, both past and present.

From telling a friend they could not attend their own grandfather’s funeral due to the impact it might have on their grades, to having a teacher say that completing homework should be prioritised by a pupil over visiting their mum in the hospital, the school’s ethos seemed to be less than considerate when it came to student wellbeing. A couple of sessions with a counsellor were offered at a push to those who needed it.  However, this was instantly invalidated by assemblies where students were told to just ‘keep smiling’ if they experienced any mental health difficulties. It might be said that these are extreme examples and, of course, there were a couple of helpful teachers that were hidden guardian angels, but my point is that mental health care in the school as a whole was extremely poor. It’s easy to see why there’s a popular belief among many ex-students that the high-pressure school environment often did more harm than good, with the culmination of intensive workloads, heavily religious ethos, and lack of pastoral care making the school a potential breeding ground for a variety of mental health issues.

It is unfortunate but true that I am not alone in my frustration; being at university made me realise that the problem stretches much further than my own experiences. The issue is that many schools nationwide are lacking in the support and education they give, both to students and teachers, surrounding mental health problems.

In the new curriculum that was introduced in 2014, PSHE (personal, social and health education) was not made statutory for primary and secondary schools – a decision that many professionals in the field of mental health opposed.  According to the PSHE Association, “teaching pupils about mental health and emotional wellbeing can play a vital role in keeping pupils safe […] It is a good opportunity to promote pupils’ wellbeing through the development of healthy coping strategies and an understanding of pupils’ own emotions as well as those of other people.” It’s obvious to see why these skillsets are essential, not only during time at school, but in later life too.

school
Whilst the ultimate goal would be to have mental health education and wellbeing as a compulsory topic in the school curriculum, perhaps a more immediately realisable goal would be making the Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) course mandatory. The two day MHFA workshop teaches someone how to look out for signs and symptoms of mental health issues, how to provide help on a first aid basis (for those experiencing psychosis or an anxiety attack) and teaches about how to encourage someone to seek further help from a professional. Opening up this content to all key stages in an appropriate way would encourage children and young people to talk more openly about their mental health, whilst potentially encouraging a teacher or friend to recognise someone’s difficulties, or even help someone realise what is happening to themselves.  

One thing that needs to be spoken to children about, from a young age, is that just like physical health, every person has a mental health, and it can often fluctuate just as our physical health can. I’m a strong believer that there’s no age too early to start encouraging children to be mindful and self-aware, an opinion further cemented upon reading about the success of a meditation room at Robert W Coleman Elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland. The school swapped detentions for the ‘Mindful Moment Room’ where students are told to sit in an isolated, quiet room with rugs and cushions, and, after being silent and focusing on their breathing, encouraged to talk to someone about how they’re feeling and why they misbehaved. So far there have been no suspensions whilst the programme has been running, and attendance has increased.

Meanwhile, in the UK, non profit organisations like the ‘Mindfulness in Schools Project’ are aiming to teach similar methods of self reflection and coping mechanisms to schools up and down the country. If more schools could take advantage of projects like this, they would help provide more solid foundations for children and this could help prevent more serious mental health issues from arising or at least equip children with the skills needed to cope with them.  

This year, of the £250 million budgeted by the government for mental health spending, there has been a £77 million underspend. Continuous cuts in spending from the government, combined with extremely long waiting times for government run services like CAMHs, mean that schools need to be more of an effective first point of contact in regards to offering support and education.

There has never been a more vital time for schools to stop playing blind. They need to make an effort to be a reliable pastoral safety blanket for the impressionable individuals in their care, before the situation deteriorates further.  Perhaps educating teachers and pupils about what to look out for, and opening up doors to those who need help, would encourage students to look at school as a place of refuge and hope, rather than a grade obsessed institution that tells you to just ‘keep smiling’.

Illustration by Lucie Jackson

This piece is part of our series of Mental Health Week articles. For more information about student counselling and mental health support at the University of Bristol, please visit: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/students-health/services/mental-health/

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