Caro Fentiman explains why mental health must be on the curriculum
MENTAL HEALTH is suddenly on everyone’s curriculum, and not before time.
The Conservative manifesto pledges 10,000 more mental health professionals in the NHS by 2020; Labour, focusing on child mental health, promises funding for more counselling resources in schools, which should please more than 100,000 people who have signed a petition calling on the government to make mental health education compulsory in our children’s curriculums: a step in the right direction, certainly, but the fact that mental health is not automatically addressed in schools already is a sign that there is a long way to go..
More than anything, we need to break the ongoing taboo of talking about mental health and, as a society, we must stop considering mental health conditions as a sign of weakness or failure.
By speaking publically, Princes Harry and William succeeded in promoting talking therapy as well as smashing the ‘stiff upper lip’ myth. Rap artiste Professor Green’s documentary on male suicide was an excellent addition, as was Fearne Cotton’s book, Happy, documenting her depression. Brad Pitt opened up about his alcohol dependency recently the latest in a long line of celebrities to admit that life isn’t always as shiny as it appears.
Recently, while I was reading the article that prompted me to write this article, my six-year-old asked, “What is mental health, Mummy?”. We talked a for a little while about things that could make us feel sad and worried, and went on to discuss someone we know who lives with bipolar (and manages it brilliantly).
“Have you ever had mental health problems, Mummy?”, she went on. So I told her how I had been unwell after her little sister was born, how it was called post-natal depression, how I had needed counselling and people to be especially kind as I recovered.
My daughter shrugged it off, no big deal; she’ll probably come back with some questions another day, after she has read a book or watched a programme on TV. Because mental health issues are EVERYWHERE, so the idea of not having it on school curriculums seems ridiculous – as a society, we are ignoring a massive elephant in the classroom.
Perhaps ministerial heels are being dragged because the shocking reality is that if everyone who needed support with their mental health spoke up, the resources just wouldn’t be there. Never mind that people suffering from depression may not be aware of it, or that the very idea of phoning a stranger for help when you are depressed can seem like an insurmountable problem, we currently have a postcode lottery where mental health is concerned, with talking therapy resources privatised and full to bursting.
A waiting time of several months is unacceptable to a person suffering from depression. When I was ill, it was all I could do to write a list of achievable goals each morning: get dressed, make lunch. . . you get the picture. Not only is a lengthy wait for support painful for the patient, it also increases the likelihood of mental health deteriorating further and developing into a more complex problem.
Self-medication (alcohol, drugs) is a huge issue, often leading to addiction; as depression becomes more entrenched it can take longer to recover; families can buckle under the strain of living with people suffering from mental health illnesses, leading to secondary health issues in carers; in the very worst cases, suicide occur – Samaritans reported 6,639 suicide deaths in the U.K. and Ireland in 2015. A speedy, effective, properly funded response is vital if we are to take mental health seriously.
So the very least we owe our children is to be open and honest about mental health. Issues tackled early on can be fixed, or strategies can be learned to ensure the best possible coping mechanisms for that young person. Mental health problems are not going to go away; many of us live with them on a daily basis.
The answer is not to talk about this ‘when the kids are older’: that merely confirms fears that their anxieties, dark thoughts or compulsive behaviours are dirty little secrets. The answer is to treat health holistically and open up debates so that mental health becomes a normal and regular consideration for children.
That 100,000-person petition should be welcomed and embraced by whichever government we put in power. And the sooner the better.
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A resource to help people stop abusing alcohol and for improving mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic