On 25th August 2015 at 9pm, I had my feet up ready to watch the new Channel 4 series ‘Educating Cardiff’. The television programme followed a group of young adults as they approach their GCSE exams – as we all know, a stressful time.
We were introduced to a young girl named Leah who was very fond of turning up late to school and absconding when she finally did arrive. In an attempt to curb this, a teacher named Mr Hennessy telephoned Leah every school day morning at 8am to make sure that she was coming into school on that day. If she did not answer, he simply kept ringing.
Now until around half way through the programme I was guilty of assuming that Leah was simply a naughty kid who did not want to learn. It would be very easy for people in her life to do this too. However, it was at the half way point of the programme when Leah burst into tears in the schoolyard before absconding, that there seemed to be something much bigger to the whole situation. Leah was with her friend (who was constantly by her side) when she began to cry and state “it’s this school, I can’t stand it. It gets you pure depressed”. Leah’s best friend just gave an awkward laugh and then preceded to run out of the school gates.
Later that evening, Leah sent a text message to Mr Hennessy. It said that she hated school because it made her feel stupid. Now, Mr Hennessy certainly went above and beyond the on-paper duty of a teacher and he really tried to ensure that Leah was ready for her exams but were Leah’s issues really addressed?
The issue I have is that the programme ended on a very happy note, as an article in The Guardian stated ‘Leah stopped skiving’. That’s it then, happy days? Perhaps it’s because I work in mental health or because my anxiety was triggered by the pressure of exams, but I thought whilst watching Educating Cardiff that Leah clearly needed to speak to someone about her mental health. She tried to talk to her best friend about this but she was quite dismissive. Now that is not the friends fault, she probably doesn’t understand mental health issues and why would she when teachers never utter such words.
For me, teachers should have been referring Leah to a counsellor so that she could talk through her issues, perhaps use CBT to address the way she negatively thinks about herself. She actually mentioned the word ‘depressed’ which I know is often thrown around in a blasé manner, but when Leah was one to one with the camera, she confided that she simply feels stupid and like she cannot do anything which is why she just runs away from school. It makes sense really.
Last year, financial education was included in the national curriculum. Doing so showed that an awareness of how to manage finances is an essential skill that young people should learn. We are now moving towards providing education on healthy eating and the dangers of obesity and this is great, but if we, as a society, are now focusing on the key issues that will affect our children for years to come then why on earth are we not discussing mental health?!
I think that the stigma that still surrounds mental health (although it is depleting) scares educators. It’s as if they want to ‘protect’ young people from the horrors of mental health. Given, however, that one in four of us will experience some form of mental health problem within our lives, this is simply nonsensical. Not only is it likely that one quarter of the schools children will at some point have mental health issues, it is likely that one quarter of those childrens’ parents will have a mental health issue.
I’m not suggesting that we go in all guns blazing and start going into the ins and outs of every psychotic illness, but children should feel comfortable enough to discuss their own mental health and the way to do this would be for teachers, who they naturally look up too, to let them know that it is okay to talk. I see no issue with mental health education forming part of the national curriculum from the age of 4. It is estimated that 50% of lifetime mental illness presents itself by the age of 14. Now, if mental health education were provided from a young age, the person with the mental illness would be able to better identify his or her own needs in relation to their mental health, and those around them would ideally be well equipped to notice when a friend is becoming unwell or simply requires some extra support.
If Leah had been provided with mental health education then she would know that it is okay to have self-doubt and to feel anxious or worthless, and could then talk about it openly with her friends who had also had the same education on mental health and were therefore understanding of her issues. It really is so hard for me to understand why mental health education is not viewed as an absolute necessity by the powers that be. Since 2010, the budget for child and adolescent mental health services has fallen by almost £50 million. I guess that, as usual, it all boils down to money.