Young people’s mental health has been constantly in the news in recent years.
Worrying stories about the increasing numbers of children and teenagers struggling with anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders and more have seen the issue rise to the top of the social and political agenda.
At Qa Research, we’ve been working on a project to gather the views of parents and pupils on preventative health information and advice. And this, too, has revealed a mental health gap.
We found that students and their parents were exposed to a considerable amount of information and advice on healthy eating and exercise, including within schools.
However, they told us there was a lack of reliable information and support around emotional health and wellbeing. And that was a particular problem in secondary schools, when mental health issues among young people increased.
“Society is so much more different to back when they [teachers] were younger. It was so easy, but now – you need to look nice, you need to have a good body, you need to do this – everything’s just stressing you.”
Research by Action for Children has found that 850,000 children have mental health problems in the UK.
Nationally that’s one in ten children. But almost three in ten of the children that the charity works with in a targeted way have emotional or mental health needs. And this peaks at almost half for 14 year olds.
Diagnosed mental illness is one thing. But there is also an urgent need to consider the day-to-day emotional health of children and young people. According to the Children’s Society young people’s happiness is at its lowest since 2010.
So where to start? Clearly, the role of the family is fundamental when it comes to supporting young people in their emotional development.
Sadly though, for some children this is where the problems begin.
School would be another obvious choice for informing and educating. However our research found that the relationship between academic achievement and emotional wellbeing is being overlooked – despite plenty of evidence demonstrating that happy minds learn better.
“School should the one place you can come and be happy…Kids don’t hate their education. They quite like their education – I like learning. They hate the environment – the way kids treat other kids, the way teachers treat kids”
This finding should not be seen as a criticism of hard-pressed teachers. But it is important to examine why many schools respond to negative behaviour – but not the causes. And why they often seem ill-equipped to help children and young people develop emotional resilience.
We identified two key reasons:
- a lack of recognition of the importance of emotional learning within the achievement / results driven framework
- the lack of a statutory standardised personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) curriculum which adequately covers emotional wellbeing and provides a toolbox of practical advice.
“We’ve got a few posters on the stairs and that’s about it.”
Parents in our research recognised the issues at stake and wished to see extended, positive examples of preventative programmes, such as stress-buster training, anger management and CBT-style thinking skills programmes.
They could see their children struggling with a range of issues but did not always feel equipped to help. As many parents know, sometimes they are the last people their children want to talk to about all that messy embarrassing stuff.
From our discussions with young people, we found that they did want to talk, face to face, with a real person. Online resources and chat sites were useful but didn’t hit the mark for everyone.
Also problematic for young people was identifying yourself as someone who was receiving help…
“It is like the walk of shame. It needs to be more open, not seen as such a bad thing. If you’re upset that should be something that’s seen as totally normal.
“If a friend or family can’t help you out, you should be able to walk into someone’s office and be able to speak to them. I have done it, people have seen you… the next thing you know you have got half your year group asking you about how you feel, why you have gone there”
What can be done?
As much as society is trying to destigmatise discussions on mental health with campaigns like ‘Time to Talk’ we aren’t there yet. So what can be done?
The solution would see the topic of mental wellbeing firmly embedded within schools and making it accessible to all – perhaps by standardising and making PSHE sessions statutory.
Now moves are underway to bring mental health into the school curriculum. The government announced in July that health education will be a mandatory part of the curriculum for all primary and secondary schools from autumn 2020.
As part of that, children will be taught how to build mental resilience and recognise when their peers are struggling with mental health issues.
Critics say this is taking too long. But it looks to be a very welcome step in the right direction.
One thing is certain. There needs to be a clear recognition that we need more than a ‘few posters on the stairs’ to help children and young people understand and look after their mental wellbeing.
For more information about the study contact research manager Kay Silversides at firstname.lastname@example.org or 01904 632 039