The honest truth about good mental health
Headmaster, Dr Julian Murphy, argues that realism – not a ‘you can do anything’ culture – is key to young people acquiring resilience and self-knowledge
With so much focus on following your dreams, no matter what, it is easy to see why teachers might shy away from having honest conversations about what pupils can realistically achieve.
Yet I firmly believe – perhaps controversially, in our ‘– that we are doing our young people a disservice if we don’t equip them with the skills to fail as well as succeed. By concentrating purely on academic and not emotional intelligence, we risk sending them out into the world lacking the resilience and self-knowledge to navigate societal pressures, leaving them more vulnerable to mental health problems.
Let’s put this in context. Social media is often blamed for having a damaging effect on teenagers’ minds and, while far from the only pressure they face, continually being bombarded with filtered and unrealistic images won’t help anyone feel good about themselves. The same is true of supposedly inspirational messages, which are usually little more than meaningless lazy clichés creating a chasm between rhetoric and reality.
As educators, we shouldn’t shield children from the harsh realities of life that are often detrimental to good mental health
I am, of course, not trying to dissuade anyone from being aspirational, or the best version of themselves. But perfection is an unattainable goal which means young people sometimes end up fearful of failure and threatened by the achievements of others.
To address this, we need to move from a fixed mindset, where issues are seen in binary terms, to a growth mindset that recognises the hard work, grit and discipline that go into achievement. While many people may have an innate talent for sport, music or maths, we should remember that only a tiny proportion reach the top and dedicate their lives to these disciplines.
You may have read in the press about my school’s decision to abolish traditional reports last year, because we felt they offer little value. With support from parents, we wanted to introduce elements of the workplace – such as SMART targets – and replace unhelpful effort grades with more nuanced ‘approach to learning’ grades covering a number of different areas. These report changes are part of an overall drive to nurture the different academic and emotional skills that contribute to long-term success, in both education and the workplace.
How are UK independent schools encouraging positive mental health?
Education Secretary Damian Hinds announced this year that up to 370 schools will be involved in a scheme to see what works to support mental health and wellbeing. The methods being measured will include mindfulness, relaxation and breathing. Why? Mental health disorders have become very common, with the NHS reporting that one in eight young people aged five to 19 had at least one mental disorder when assessed in 2017.
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This emphasis on ensuring pupils receive a well-rounded education – which is as much about character strength as exam results – is embodied in our Minerva programme. Named after the Roman goddess of wisdom, it is about firmly embedding good mental health practices in school culture, rather than seeing them an as an ad hoc topic for PSHE lessons or assemblies.
Take homework as an example. Traditional homework tasks encourage pupils to complete written work with all their notes in front of them. We encourage, instead, the practice of split homework, whereby pupils do some brief revision then close all their files and complete the work under exam conditions. This helps to embed knowledge in the long-term memory, and builds a practical and emotional preparedness for examinations in children from a young age.
We are doing our young people a disservice if we don’t equip them with the skills to fail as well as succeed
This is just one example of how we encourage staff and pupils alike to make the Minerva programme part of their day-to-day working lives, not least because people rarely respond to one-off sessions on wellbeing.
Every year we hold a Minerva Day. Taking a day out of the curriculum – and with help from a range of experts – we explore the importance of communication skills, spirituality, resilience, and using technology in a healthy way, among other things. As well as being tremendous fun for everyone involved, pupils finished the day feeling they have learned empowering ideas and practices to tackle the emotional challenges we all face. As educators, we shouldn’t shield children from the harsh realities of life that are often detrimental to good mental health, but instead demonstrate how adversity can be overcome through the patient application of good mental habits.
Dr Julian Murphy is headmaster of Loughborough Amherst School