Mental health will become a mandatory part of the national curriculum from September 2020. The government's plans concerning what exactly these classes will look like is set to be revealed this month.
Extensive polling by Mental Health Today reveals that an overwhelming majority of people want children to be taught how to support others with mental health needs.
According to NHS England, one in four adults and one in 10 children experience mental illness. Given this, it's inevitable that schoolchildren are going to encounter potentially upsetting or confusing symptoms reflective of poor mental health.
The Department for Education's draft plans for school mental health lessons highlights the importance of developing healthy relationships: "to give young people the information they need to help them develop healthy, nurturing relationships of all kinds". Education about appropriate boundaries within different relationships, as well as how to assert them, can be applied to mental health, especially when venturing into the realm of disclosure of mental health difficulties."Children should be taught how to [...] treat each other with kindness, consideration and respect, the importance of honesty and truthfulness, permission seeking and giving, and the concept of personal privacy", it reads.
This guidance illuminates the merits of ensuring children understand safeguarding procedures surrounding oneself and peers: "Good practice allows children an open forum to discuss potentially sensitive issues. Children should be made aware of the processes to raise their concerns or make a report and how any report will be handled".
Having an understanding of safeguarding procedures would decrease the pressure upon children to carry the potentially upsetting knowledge of someone's struggles alone. It would encourage them to receive support in supporting others, something which 96% of Mental Health Today readers are calling for.
Whilst the draft plans for the mental health curriculum says that "schools should engender an atmosphere that encourages openness", children should be encouraged to be mindful of what is appropriate to share with others and to whom it is appropriate to share with. This is not to discourage children from being open about their mental health, but rather part of creating a trauma-sensitive school. In such an environment, teachers will encourage pupils to respect the variety of one another's experiences, so children will learn to recognise situations in which it is more appropriate to speak to a teacher or school counsellor than a child.
- See more: "I thought that there was something wrong with me or I was just a bad person" says Ann-Marie D'Arcy-Sharp who lives with Bipolar Disorder.
- See more: Teachers should be empowered to acknowledge that mental health is a contested area, argues psychologist and lecturer Anne Cooke
Even if young people have not experienced mental health issues themselves, effective mental health education should instill a sense of empathy in them, allowing them to consider what support they would benefit from if they were in that situation.
A "whole school approach" is mentioned in the Department for Education's draft guidance, suggesting the importance of fostering an environment that allows children to flourish - even in the face of mental health problems. This approach "means maximising children’s learning through promoting good mental health and wellbeing across the school – through the curriculum, early support for pupils, staff-pupil relationships, leadership and a commitment from everybody"*.
Ann-Marie D'Arcy-Sharpe, who lives with Bipolar Disorder, agrees that a mental health curriculum would help tackle stigma and improve outcomes. "Mental health education would not only benefit the individual, but also those around them, as it would enable them to better support others", she says. "Open conversations about mental health need to be normalised from an early age so that young people grow up to be compassionate and better able to cope with adversity".
If the mental health curriculum - which helps children to support others - is formulated and enacted with the sensitivity that it deserves, it will not be at the cost of a child's own psychological wellbeing.
Find out more about Mental Health Today's 'Teach Me Well' campaign to shape the mandatory mental health curriculum: coming to schools from September 2020.
* from 'Mentally Healthy Schools' - a resource to help UK primary schools support the mental health of their pupils.