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Publications:Focus on: Mental Health in education: an unspoken issue of our age

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Date of publication: 19 December 2017

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"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society" - Jiddu Krishnamurti

When children have physical health problems, schools are soon aware of them. Similarly awareness-raising activities on the importance of physical health are commonplace, whether the focus is on nutrition, hygiene or sport. But although children are equally likely to suffer from mental as physical health problems, mental health is much less likely to be addressed in schools. Why is this, and what is the impact of neglecting mental health in education?

While physical ailments usually have a visible aspect, mental health issues are often hidden. We are not only less at ease talking about mental health, but we particularly avoid thinking about children's mental health. Regardless of our discomfort and avoidance of the topic, the World Health Organisation estimates that up to one in five children and adolescents suffer from developmental, emotional or behavioural problems, and one in eight has a mental disorder. 

Mental health problems develop early. Research shows that 50 % of adult mental health problems start before the age of 15 and 75 % of before the age of 18. A 2015 project on mental health in schools in Europe found that around 10 % of school students aged 6-11 had problems requiring mental health care. To put this another way, in every primary school classroom there are on average two or three children with a mental health issue.    

And to complete the distressing picture, a disproportionate number of teachers are also suffering from mental health problems. In the UK, a 2017 survey found that 75 % of teachers reported a physical or mental health issue related to work in the past two years, compared to 62 % in the overall working population. 

Despite these troubling statistics, the country information in the Youth Wiki confirms findings of a recent EU report on mental health and schools showing that countries often have no specific mental health policies targeting children and adolescents. They are also unable to specify the resources dedicated to this age group, and have no interventions for "at risk" groups of young people. 

Even when the subject of mental health in schools is openly addressed, it is often quickly dismissed. An example comes from David Cameron's UK government, which in 2015 took the pioneering step of appointing Natasha Devon, a campaigner in the field of young people's mental health, as Mental Health Champion for Schools. However, after she criticised government education policies – especially increasing the frequency of testing pupils, which she claimed was worsening mental health problems – she was removed from her post.

The trend for more widespread pupil testing is ubiquitous throughout Europe and the world. Eurydice's 2011 study on national tests in Europe found that "nationally standardised tests are being increasingly developed to meet the need for standardised data on pupil performance". At international level, the OECD's PISA tests are treated as an important reference point for comparing education systems. While these tests may all serve useful purposes, they increase anxiety and stress for teachers and students alike.

Many well-intentioned policies may unwittingly reinforce mental health problems. The need to judge the success or failure of educational policy through standardised evidence has led to a focus on measuring "outcomes" through testing. At the same time, the main objective of education policy is often to develop the skills needed for an unpredictable labour market, with a particular concentration on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). It is rare that other subjects are accorded equal importance in policy discussions, or that goals such as personal fulfilment and wellbeing are valued. As a result, schools put children under pressure to succeed in a narrow range of subjects, while either overtly or implicitly labelling them as successes or failures during the process. Meanwhile activities that can foster the development of personality and counterbalance stress, such as sport, music, dance and art, are squeezed.

There is also little reflection about the impact of the school environment on potentially vulnerable young people. For example, one commonly expressed goal of education is to make children and young people more "resilient". Resilience is about coping with difficulty, and this is indeed important. However, if children internalise the idea that experiencing difficulty is a sign of weakness, they may try to hide problems, and develop a fear of failure. While this is detrimental to their learning, it is also likely to be harmful to their mental health.

Education systems are not solely responsible for creating children's mental health problems – but they could play an important role in responding to them. It is not inevitable that societies end up with chronic and widespread mental health problems. However, if we are to tackle this issue, we first need to acknowledge that it exists.

Authors: David Crosier and Ralitsa Donkova