Last year, child and adolescent mental health services were cut by £35m, alongside an 8% reduction in available beds on mental health wards. Even though David Cameron has recently promised to reinject money into these services, it would be too optimistic to assume that the cuts implemented by the Conservative government can be reversed in an instant.
Although the most recent available data on youth mental health dates back to 2004, it’s still useful in demonstrating just how important it is for mental health services to be kept in place. According to this data, around 1 in 10 young people aged 5 to 16 had a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder, with around 50% of disorders being established by the age of 14.
There still exists a preconception that mental health problems only occur in adulthood; Issues that arise in adolescence are often just put down to puberty. How can children as young as 5 experience symptoms of depression when they might not even understand what depression is? Yet if we look beyond the statistics and try to imagine what it’s like to be a child or teenager today, it becomes unsurprising that the prevalence of youth mental health problems has increased in recent years.
Undoubtedly an increased pressure to perform well at school has had a profound effect on the mental wellbeing of Britain’s children. Rigorous testing throughout a child’s time at school sends out the message that a grade on a piece of paper is the only thing that matters, a message that is carried through all levels of education.
Yet in spite of the mounting pressure that’s being placed on children, mental health remains off the curriculum, meaning that children and teenagers often find it difficult to speak out about the problems they’re facing; some may even be unaware that the feelings they’re experiencing need addressing. Without normalising the idea of mental health, children will carry their problems with them through adolescence and into adulthood, from school to university to the workplace.
Some may suggest that there are a number of problems that could arise from introducing teachings on mental health to the curriculum. Will it be possible to provide a broad, unbiased view of mental health? Isn’t the subject too dark for young children? Who will teach it?
First of all, it may seem a daunting task to cover every aspect of mental health, but many subjects on the curriculum currently do just that. We don’t teach politics just by focusing on one political party, the study of history is meant to consider all perspectives, and religious studies is meant to encompass all major religions. Mental health should be no different. What’s more important perhaps, is that it’s taught appropriately at each level of education, which leads me on to the second question.
Young children are undoubtedly capable of taking in important and advanced information, and unlike adults, in most cases they do so without exhibiting a negative reaction. Teaching young children about mental health won’t involve them having to learn the symptoms of depression or the biological factors that cause it. Instead, it should focus on encouraging and allowing children to express how they feel whether it be through drama, dance or creative writing.
The final question is a difficult one to answer. The aforementioned cuts to mental health budgets means that counselling for children and adolescents is hard to find without a lengthy waiting list, and many schools don’t have the money available to have an on-site mental health specialist. Perhaps it would be unfair to expect teachers to take on this specialist role without the appropriate training in addition to the heavy workload and long hours they already have to deal with. However, the reinvention of personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) could be the vital foundation for the introduction of mental health to the curriculum. At present, PSHE covers topics such as alcohol, drugs, personal health and sex education, and it can be argued that mental health wouldn’t be out place on that list.
PSHE is meant to ‘equip young people with the knowledge, understanding, attitudes and practical skills to live healthily, safely, productively and responsibly’, but surely someone’s ability to achieve these goals is heavily dictated by their mental wellbeing? The introduction of mental health to the PSHE curriculum would be a small success; most schools teach PSHE for an hour or so a week, and with so many topics to cover, it’s unlikely that any teaching on mental health would initially have a profound impact. But, surely something is better than nothing? One thing is for sure, if we keep pretending that mental health problems don’t exist among youth, then the stigma that surrounds it in adult life is arguably only being perpetuated.