2017 was a big year for mental health awareness. Let’s hope 2018 is even better because classroom statistics about the mental health of our young people are dire and worsening.The estimate is that, at any one time, around 30% of school pupils have unresolved mental health issues. That means that there are three in every class. In my time – both in ‘challenging’ high schools and ‘privileged’ independent ones – I have seen it all. I’ve witnessed self-harm, eating disorders, damaged self esteem, depression, anxiety, children being traumatised by bullying and much – far too much – more.
Well, first we need to acknowledge it and talk about it. January is an ideal time since, for many, it is said to be the lowest point in the year. Mental health matters as much as physical health. There is no more reason to be ashamed of, say, anorexia than of chicken pox.
Bravo Prince Harry who spoke openly about his own problems last year. He and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have put their weight, including a £2m grant from The Royal Foundation, behind the stigma-breaking Heads Together.
Meanwhile Theresa May promised last year that every school would have a mental health first aider. At present, some schools have a counsellor but many do not and, in practice, there can be a long wait to see him or her.
Teachers will try, of course, because the vast majority of them care deeply about the welfare of their pupils. The difficulty is that few have the relevant training to help effectively and therefore might make things even worse.
I often think about a 15-year-old I taught. Let’s call her Michelle. Deeply troubled she was given to scraping her finger nails hard down the back of her other hand so that both her hands were permanently raw, sore, bleeding and often infected. I was head of year and Michelle’s kind friend would bring her, distressed, to my office almost daily. I listened and did what I could but of course it was way beyond my experience and expertise to give much real help. In the end poor Michelle was admitted to a rural mental hospital – when such places still existed.
Youngsters like Michelle are in every school. A few of them – the worst scenario – are suicidal. Yes, we have to find ways of getting professional help to them quickly. It would also help a bit, I think, if we – every parent, grandparent, sibling, teacher and the rest – stopped setting them up to fail. They don’t have to have a dozen top grade GCSE passes, a perfect body or a beautiful face for life to be meaningful. And we should be telling and showing them that every day.