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We are in a national crisis where our country’s mental health has reached a critical state. On November 6th, this was debated by MP’s in parliament at Westminster. I sat in the public gallery of the House of Commons as Catherine McKinnell, the MP from Newcastle, opened the debate by congratulating the Shaw Foundation for the great response to their petition on making mental health education compulsory in all schools. What followed was largely a one-sided debate where all ministers agreed that we are facing a tsunami of mental health problems for which we are ill prepared. The evidence was damping and the data worrying, with hard facts provided by Future in Mind, a department of health study, The NSPCC, The Care Quality Commission, National Union of Teachers etc.
Some of the root causes debated by MP’s were the clear link to children’s online habits which are keeping them isolated, sleep deprived and stuck in a dependence mode with low self-esteem, low self-confidence and fear of failing; along with too much pressure from a young age to pursue high academic standards; frequent cyberbullying and sexting; increased obsession with body awareness; and lack of skills that prepare children for life - such as resilience, within the curriculum. It was agreed that the main triggers that cause mental health illness are stress and pressure, and that we have an education system that has made a clear choice between academic standards and well-being. We would all agree that academic success is important but not at the expense of emotional well-being.
“Life” is more competitive and less safe than any previous generation, there are higher study costs and an increasingly competitive job market, and the latest statistics show that the rise in crime is accelerating with the UK becoming increasingly violent. Should we be looking at how we can build character education across the school curriculum so that the next generation has a better moral compass?
What if I told you that I believe that we can reduce these mental health illnesses by 50% within the next five years and eliminate them within 10 years. To do this we need to focus on the root causes and make systemic changes to our education system to address them head-on. It’s going to be hard to make this quantum breakthrough in the current state of our nations mental health as it requires a paradigm shift – a whole new way of seeing, interpreting and understanding the teaching profession and the education of a child. By educating the whole-person and building a whole-school culture that doesn’t solely tend to academic achievement, but also focuses on preventive strategies that can build resilience, grit and well-being into our school curriculums we can steer clear from poor mental health. A whole-person approach involves educating a child’s mind (growth and development), body (health and energy), heart (strong relationships, vigor and passion), and spirit (finding meaning and opportunities for contribution).
Even though teachers aren’t mental health professionals, they are by default already having to fulfil this role and all too often sticking band aids on gaping mental health issues and left to fend for themselves to deal with the consequences. Teachers have a unique frontline opportunity to take responsibility for the preventative work that is required to build life skills, emotional well-being and resilient children.
Our current education system is failing the emotional well-being of our teachers so to expect these same teachers to be in an emotionally good place to enhance the mental health of children is unlikely. The first step to supporting the well-being of young people is to address the recruitment and retention crisis in teaching. Our schools need to be empowered, teachers need to be freed from the current straight jacket curriculum. We need to create a school-wide culture and curriculum that enables us to utilise the full capabilities of our teachers and by tapping into their vision, passion and discipline we can help them to build partnerships with the children and parents to prevent mental health issues. The tri-factor approach is critical to cracking the mental health code.
If the government starts to think about the problem in a new, less reactive way and start making significant investments in education to focus on the whole-person and support a whole-school approach we can eliminate our mental health issues. Children will no longer be treated as a thing that must regurgitate the correct information and be defined by a grade, but rather as a whole-person that needs to be loved, nurtured and developed to their full potential.
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