Kate draws upon her own experiences with mental health to advocate for better mental health education in all schools.
All of us have mental health and all of us can at some point suffer from mental health difficulties, yet mental health remains steeped in great stigma. In fact, 26% of young people in the UK experience suicidal thoughts*; 1 in 10 suicides in the UK are by those aged 15-24**; and 10% of young people have a diagnosable mental health condition**. Why then is mental health not on the national curriculum for primary and secondary schools?
I vividly recall, throughout my primary and secondary education, lessons on safe sex, healthy eating, drug use and bullying, but not even one on mental health. Mental health is equally as important as – and can often be a cause or consequence of these issues. In fact, a 2014 survey by Beatbullying found that 55% of those bullied as children develop mental health conditions as adults, with more than one in three having suicidal thoughts or self-harming. So why is it neglected from the school curriculum?
At 11 years old, I experienced notable changes in my mental health. I started to experience insomnia, often struggling to get to sleep until 3am which at 11 years old was confusing and distressing. And, apart from going to school or to the odd sleepover/meet-up with friends, I barely left my room let alone my house. I found myself constantly making up excuses to avoid going out. I didn’t know why: I just couldn’t, nor did I want to, leave the house.
My difficulties got worse when I was 12; I had just moved back to the UK and started at a new girls’ grammar school. I remember going to school each day and spending all day with my friends yet feeling so alone. As I struggled more with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder and suicidal thoughts, I had what felt like these huge and shameful secrets and that I had no one to go to. One part of me was desperate for someone to read my mind, to notice I wasn’t okay, whilst the other part of me put all energy into masking my struggles – I was terrified of anyone finding out and seeing into my private world.
Throughout my school years I didn’t realise that I was suffering from serious mental health difficulties. I had never been taught about depression, eating disorders, anxiety, or suicidal ideation, so how on earth was I supposed to understand my own mental health? It is no wonder that I spent so many years living in fear and shame for conditions that could have been treated much earlier on.
When people do open up about their mental health, they are often faced with invalidation and stigma. The stigmas attached to mental health often stem from ignorance. Without mental health education, it is inevitable that young people are going to be ill informed about mental health and thus will likely struggle to openly discuss, understand and support others with a mental illness.
So, can we blame people’s ignorance when schools have failed to educate them about mental health? Until people start talking about, normalising and understanding mental health, ignorance and stigmas will continue to be reinforced. The stigmas attached to mental health need to be broken and compulsory mental health education in schools is an incredibly important step towards this.
Being taught about mental health may not necessarily have prevented my mental health conditions but I may have been more aware about my mental health and may not have suffered for so many years in silence. Maybe I would have felt able to seek help without fearing being judged and would have recognised sooner that I wasn’t well.
Ultimately, mental health education in schools could encourage a young person to speak out about their own mental health with the confidence that they will not be stigmatised, but that their feelings will be validated and that they will receive the support they deserve and need.
If you're feeling low or anxious as a student we might be able to help you get support. For more information about finding support services visit www.studentminds.org.uk/find-support.html.
* YoungMinds (2016a) Mental health statistics. http://www.youngminds.org.uk/about/whats_the_problem/mental_health_statistics (Accessed: 6 November 2016).
** YoungMinds (2016b) Mental health statistics - young people statistics. Available at: http://www.youngminds.org.uk/training_services/policy/mental_health_statistics
Hi I'm Kate, a Psychology undergraduate at King's College London. I want to write for Student Minds to share my ongoing experiences with mental illness, hopefully helping others to feel less alone, more able to speak up, and to break the stigma surrounding mental illness.