In a recent education update that landed in my inbox, I was particularly taken by a document published by the House of Commons.  The Health and Education Committees have worked together to produce a report on the role of education in children and young people’s mental health. Indeed, the topic of the mental health of young people has (and rightly so) been a very hot one in the media recently, helped by the openness of the younger generations of the Royal Family.
As educators, we tend to find that, whatever the latest initiative is to support young people, the words ‘….they should teach that in schools’ strike a rather discordant note. After all, between the ever more rigorous demands of the curriculum, GCSEs, A Levels, university entrance tests and interviews, delivery of high quality sport, drama and music, how do we begin to fit in financial education, healthy living, online safety and the myriad other excellent ideas into the school day. That is not to suggest these aren’t really important matters; they very much are but teachers are not trained in these areas, never mind wondering where we might squeeze in that lesson on loans and interest rates!
A recent article in the Independent  newspaper, suggested a range of “Life skills that should be taught in schools but aren’t”. Amongst them were: how to cook a roast dinner, managing your tax affairs, sexual values, respecting boundaries and being in tune with your mental health.
It is the latter of these that particularly struck me and on which, more anon. Although I interrupt this thought with a further one which ponders how many of those listed were skills which we would previously have seen passed down through generations and communities. What role has been played, in losing these skills, by the perceived lack of community in our lives? – but that is perhaps a blog post on its own.
So to return to the topic of mental health and the role of education, I feel both hugely positive on the one hand and somewhat frustrated on the other. On the one hand we are more open about the mental health problems which face some young people and they are, themselves, more able to articulate these problems to peers and adults. In addition, parents and professionals are more comfortable with the topic, on the whole, than we would have seen in the past, making the taboo lessened if not totally quashed.
The flipside to this is that we have opened Pandora’s box without fully realising the consequences or putting a safety net in place to capture its contents. According to Greek mythology, after the contents of Pandora’s box were released, only Hope was left in the bottom when she closed it up again and, in this myth, we can see an explanation of why, when all else in life could seem to be bleak, we still always have Hope.
The aforementioned House of Commons report made certain recommendations and I feel proud that Northampton High School is a step ahead on this. Strengthening the training of staff in mental health first aid was one recommendation and I am pleased to say that we trained sixteen teaching and non-teaching staff in Mental Health First Aid earlier this year in an attempt to ensure we have a whole team of staff to cascade knowledge and work hard with our students, in recognising signs of distress. If you are interested in what this training entails, I have included a link at the end  and Ms Margareto discussed it in her blog post in March. The report also welcomes the Government’s commitment to make Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHEE) mandatory in schools. Through not only our Radically Enriched Curriculum (REC) periods, but through the interactions, conversations and activities in tutor time, we already lead the way in this area. A final major recommendation of the report was that links between schools and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) should be strengthened and here is the safety net for the opening of Pandora’s box. Staff can do so much to support young people in need in school, but fully trained and experienced professionals are vital and it is to be hoped that funding into these specialist services will be a priority of our new Government.
In conclusion, I firstly cannot overlook the role of 21st Century life on the mental health of young people; we have only scratched the surface of the possible consequences of social media, an ‘always switched on’ generation of young people, sleep deprivation and harmful online content; this again is a post in its own right and understanding the role of these issues in the mental health of young people will make a big difference. In the meantime, we have much of the Hope from Pandora’s box to keep us going. We can also give thought to the balance in our school day of subject-specific education against life skills and co-curricular matters and the external influences upon young people’s mental health.
Adèle O’Doherty, Deputy Head (Pastoral Care and Guidance)