Stiff upper lip?

Frances Mwale discusses attitudes to mental health in young people

The recent Children’s Mental Health Week was incredibly important for making transparent and explaining the range and extent of situations facing society. I was often riveted to television and radio programmes, as well as drawn to articles, about multitudinous issues in our frenetic, modern world: often a real eye-opener. Working in a school where pupils have access to professional counselling, our staff feel well supported when addressing the many complex mental health issues that face young people today. A recent BBC article mentioned children having to deal with family break-ups, bereavement and difficulties arising from drug and substance abuse, not to mention the increased sexualisation and violence that is prevalent in many communities. Hearing that greater funding will be available to provide the desired level of support to all schools, particularly funding for talking therapies, is enormously welcome.

Another significant issue to be tackled is the understanding of and attitudes towards illnesses that are of the mind; mental health awareness initiatives go some way to addressing these. Sympathy is evident when it comes to a broken bone, illness or condition such as diabetes, but when it comes to mental health, there is still stigma, even prejudice attached and some outmoded viewpoints. ‘Keeping a stiff upper lip’ when facing times of trial and not ‘airing your laundry in public’ are attitudes that still persist. When undertaking mental health training, I was quoted that one in three of us would at some time in our lives suffer with a mental health issue. With its very broad range including grief, depression, loneliness and managing anger, I would suggest that at some point in time, all of us do. It is our reaction to life’s trials that can lead to mental health issues, rather than the issues themselves and so building life skills to promote wellbeing and happiness are, quite rightly, very much in the fore of current educational thinking.

Young people need informing that alongside looking great and keeping healthy, they must also nurture positive relationships and mental wellbeing

My generation was often kept away from what were deemed ‘adult’ situations; for example, money was never discussed in front of children and attendance at funerals, even those of quite close family members, was often considered inappropriate, the importance of the grieving process not fully understood. Now as adults, how can we help the next generation to come to terms with life’s inevitabilities, if we have not experienced and learned to deal with them ourselves? Teenage anxiety and anger issues were once attributed just to hormones and dealt with more through sanctions than dialogue. A balance has to be struck between shielding our youngsters from the harsher realities and allowing them to grow through life experiences. As parents and educators, this can be tricky to navigate.  

Hearing that a young person has expressed suicidal thoughts is alarming: ‘did not see that coming’. However, the Young Minds charity’s statistics suggests that one in four young people will experience these, and that teenage rates of depression have increased by 70% over the past 25. We read how some groups are far more vulnerable than others: those in care, for example. But this must not let us close our minds to the fact that children in wonderfully supportive, caring and often affluent homes will also have personal battles.

Unhelpful is the blame culture, where parenting skills are constantly questioned or inadequacies about spotting obvious signs which lead to crisis situations are highlighted. Pressures on young people these days are important contributory factors. Our young people have ‘never had it better’: there is a wealth of opportunity set before them to travel, to network, to access information and yet along with these, society imposes pressures of conforming, competing and striving for status, often with youngsters being defined by what they do or have, rather than for who they are.

So what are the answers? It certainly is not acceptable to do nothing. Young people need informing that alongside looking great and keeping healthy, they must also nurture positive relationships and mental wellbeing. Children with a wide social circle, appropriate adults to whom they can turn and excellent role models grow into resilient, happy, self-sufficient and confident individuals.

My school, Farlington, believes in ‘educating for confidence’. This does not come about by keeping our children away from pressured situations; quite the contrary. They are steered towards having a go, taking a risk and trying something new, but always in the knowledge that a safety-net of support is there. Failing is always a possibility, but in failing there is no shame, rather learning and growth. Having strong values to underpin the way we live our lives is a vital component: we need to work towards what is good and true and important.

Mental health issues in our society are real and not going away. Our youngsters need to know that they are cherished, believed and taken seriously, whatever they are going through and this will begin by examining our own attitudes and reactions, as parents and educators: more information, more talk and sharing, more getting issues out in to the open are to be encouraged.

Frances Mwale is Prep Headmistress, Farlington School 

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