It’s time we talked to teenagers about mental health

This article was originally published in The Oxford Student under the headline “Sinking grades ring alarm bells for self-harm.”

One in every five secondary schools pupils in the UK self-harms.

This figure comes from a Prince’s Trust survey released in January, which interviewed 2161 people aged between 16 and 25. It’s worrying that despite the headlines it generated, as a number it doesn’t really feel all that shocking. We all know people who’ve self-harmed, who’ve had depression, anxiety or eating disorders. Often as not, those people are ourselves. Hence, in Oxford, it’s right we have an accessible, well-trained university-wide counselling service. It’s right we have active student-led welfare teams in most colleges. And it’s right we have groups like Mind Your Head and Student Minds working to raise awareness and help those in need.

But what the Prince’s Trust picked up on is that within our 16-25 age group, it’s not high-achievers like Oxford students who are most at risk of mental illness but those who perform poorly at school, who are out of work, who feel helpless and powerless in the face of the future. For “failing” pupils – those with fewer than five GSCEs at grade C or above – the self-harming rate jumps to one in three. For jobless 16-25 years old, a third of them have contemplated suicide and they’re twice as likely to be prescribed anti-depressants.

Nearly half a million 16-25 year olds in the UK are not in education, employment or training. Thus why Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, calls unemployment “a public health issue.” She says that “unemployed young people are struggling in many aspects of their lives, from their mental health and wellbeing to their relationships. We must act quickly to end this.”

When the education system fails young people already at risk, suspends them, excludes them, leaves them to rot in schools with inadequate services for supporting learning, we risk cursing them to a lifetime of joblessness, social isolation and mental health problems.

I canvassed my friends on how they felt mental health was dealt with at a normal UK state school. One didn’t “really remember being taught much in school about it. There’s such a stigma around it.” Another dismissed what little was taught as just “random awareness days with one stall on mental health in-between smoking and cancer.”

So here’s a proposal, backed by charities like Mindfull and Young Minds. We expect every pupil to do an hour of strenuous physical education each week, to keep them fit and stave off a public health crisis called obesity. So why shouldn’t schools also embed education about mental health into the curriculum? To have an hour a week dedicated to mental wellbeing – to frank discussion, to monitoring pupils for risk signs, to developing emotional literacy.

If you look at teenage mental health forums online, you’ll drown in stories of people waiting months for doctors’ appointments or being denied them altogether for being under 18. Maybe it’s time we brought in yearly personal mental health sessions in secondary school, with a reliable referral system in place. Because everyone has to do it, this would normalise the act of seeing a counsellor, as well as doing a systematic check-up of pupils’ mental health.

If we don’t tackle mental health education in the teenage demographic, we deny young people the tools and vocabulary to help themselves, putting them at risk of unemployment and loneliness. I care about this because I self-harmed, as did a close friend, in later secondary school, without ever sensing anything was wrong or feeling any need to seek professional help – or even being asked by anyone responsible if anything was the matter. Yes, there’s some good advice online, but there also lurks the world of suicide and pro-ana blogs, a world we don’t want future generations of teenagers to be part of.

It can be tempting to sneer – to say there’s already too much on the curriculum, that this is the job of parents and charities, to demand people just toughen up. But teenagers can’t learn properly if they’re depressed, can’t fully succeed if they’re self-harming. Incorporating mental health education into teacher training, into the classroom, into the curriculum, would be a significant step to creating a future society where disadvantaged people with mental illnesses didn’t feel stigmatised and could get all the support they deserve.

If you’re feeling anxious or depressed, you can talk to your Welfare reps or the University counselling service.

If you’d rather speak to someone outside the University, you can call the Samaritans in times of distress on 08457 909090.

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