Mental health is a BIG issue. The stats are that 1 in 4 of us will experience some kind of mental health problem in our lifetime. These figures can only have been measured in terms of who has presented themselves and owned up to it. I’m convinced there must be millions, or even billions of people around the world who haven’t told anyone and tried to deal with it themselves, which makes the stats even higher. In the UK, waiting lists for therapy and other treatments are outrageously long because so many people require them. Mental health problems cross all the barriers of age, race, gender, occupation, social class and status. No-one is immune.
When you consider how much of a problem this is, it seems both ridiculous and amazing that as a society, we don’t put much emphasis on preventative measures. Sure, there is a lot of talk about improving services and developing new treatments along with many extremely worthwhile campaigns designed to get us talking and end the stigma. These are all fantastic developments. But they could be seen as locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.
In order to truly address the scale of the situation, we need to look at WHY so many people are struggling.
It’s complicated to break down because there are a lot of different factors to take into account. You could say it’s because of someone’s upbringing, a crisis that happened or that mental health conditions are attributed to genetic factors. These are certainly true in a lot of cases, but I think much of it is down to the fact we do not place enough importance on emotional wellbeing in our society.
By this I mean there is no education or preparation designed to equip us for the basics of surviving life and developing skills to deal with anything life might throw at us. For instance life can hurl relationship difficulties, communication breakdown, self-esteem problems, family issues, raising children, divorce, illness and death at us. That’s just the tip of the iceberg from my cultural perspective. Put yourself somewhere in the world that is experiencing war, extreme poverty or oppression and try to come out of that in one piece. You may suffer adversity or difficult circumstances and cope with it, but what if you can’t? The evidence is that many people simply can’t deal with the hand they have been dealt in life. We don’t know how to talk about and deal with our own problems and it can also be difficult to know how to help someone else.
Life is hard. It has never pretended to be anything else and it has no obligation to be good to us. But why don’t we know earlier about the way that life can suck and have a better idea how to deal with it?
I think a lot of the problems people develop are normal responses to difficult or abnormal circumstances, but we just don’t know how to deal with these responses and feelings.
I think it is shocking that we are allowed to leave school without an obligatory life management skills qualification. I don’t think it’s enough to say that this is a job for parents, or for the person themselves to find out through ‘life experience’. I think we should be taught how we can look after ourselves emotionally, recognise the signs of not coping and have a toolbox of resources both internal and external to draw on should we feel unwell.
It should be commonplace to implement mental health training and awareness for students in the curriculum but also have sessions focused on positive and proactive ways to deal with life problems.
Basic counselling skills would not go amiss either. How much easier would life be if we were all trained in listening properly, helping somebody to reflect on their situation, adopting a non-judgemental approach to another person and assisting them to find their way through their emotions? I gained a basic counselling skills certificate in 6 weeks, so surely it wouldn’t take much to have this as a module in a personal skills/health subject for older teenagers?
It needs to be normal for children to grow up feeling valued, heard and equipped with life coping skills. To have a realistic sense of the world they are going into and to feel confident in their abilities to handle emotions and situations. Particularly because mental health issues, specifically anorexia and bulimia are now presenting themselves in children under 10.
Education focuses on grades and preparation for University or jobs. It doesn’t focus on the whole person or look at what might be stopping them from achieving. A student may be extremely academically capable, but be unable to attain their potential if they are struggling emotionally and mentally. They are sent to Learning Mentors, counsellors or behavioural therapists if they are in trouble. Why not eqip them early on with the skills to express themselves and work through issues directly in the syllabus?
It needs a significant shift in perspective which I don’t think will happen unless we take the emphasis off fixing the problem and look instead at the root causes. Education is only one route into addressing mental health difficulties, but it’s a start.