The mental health fad in schoolsMay 2, 2016
I’ve observed in the past that it is often the posts that just straighten out the facts that are most controversial. This has once more been true in my post yesterday saying that the statistics being used to show that there was a mental health crisis in schools don’t actually seem to show that. There have been lots of responses objecting to the idea that anyone could doubt that there was.
I was restrained. I am the last person to think that mental health is not important. I’ve suffered stress at work including leaving schools over it, and more than one person close to me has suffered from mental health problems. I’ve repeatedly blogged about teacher stress and depression. I am the last person to treat mental health issues as insignificant or try to add to the stigma.
But, I do have the following opinions:
- Teachers are not therapists and not doctors. We can try to be supportive and we have an important duty to try to refer students to those who can help. But we are not qualified to treat mental health problems.
- Like SEN, mental health is full of folk tales and quack treatments. Anything done to support people with mental health problems, or to prevent mental health problems, should be based on the best evidence and judged by people with appropriate clinical qualifications. Even some of the treatments with the best average effects are ineffective or even harmful in some cases.
- The causes of mental health problems are complex. It is simply not good enough to assume that anything any child could worry about is a cause of mental health problems that has to be eliminated. The aim of removing worry from childhood, anxiety from adolescence or pressure from studying is not a realistic one.
- Charities working with young people should not be given a free pass. We know from Kids Company that it is perfectly possible for them to be wasting money on vanity projects. It is not impossible for them to be promoting nonsense or ripping off schools. They should be scrutinised, just as schools should.
I do think CAMHS is very important. I do not have a problem with trained counsellors in schools. I do think teachers should be familiar with the signs of mental illness. But we should be very careful. Firstly, panic will not help anybody, least of all the emotionally vulnerable. Secondly, there are snake oil salesmen out there willing to exploit the ignorance of those hoping to assist children with their mental health. One reader passed on this:
NLP is a discredited fad whose practitioners keep looking for opportunities to get into an educational setting. A mental health scare is another such opportunity. Another reader passed on a “fact” about mental health that actually came from a practitioner of “alternative medicine”. Thirdly, there are ethical issues in intervening in students’ lives and hoping to change their thoughts and beliefs. They are entitled to privacy, even about their problems. While I believe that meditation and mindfulness is probably good for mental health, I have grave ethical concerns about religious practices being passed on in a secularised form to children whose parents have not chosen to send them to a faith school. Trying to avoid causing upset to students may lead to attempts to curtail free speech or to remove challenging content from their studies. Finally, my concern is that there is a political debate being obscured by this. Progressives have always promoted their vision of education by claiming that it is better for student wellbeing, and by trying to pursue non-academic aims. A panic about student mental health can be used to pursue this agenda. It is repeatedly being used as an excuse to call for an end to testing, despite no evidence that testing is a cause of serious mental health problems.
So let’s be very careful here. Do not be won over by those who simply assert they are raising awareness, removing stigma, saving lives or making children happy. Mental health is an area where evidence matters and much of it is already out there and tells us that there are no simple answers. We do not have a duty to turn schools into therapeutic establishments or campaign groups. There really is no mandate for the projects mentioned here, where a school is introducing “yoga in KS4 PSHE”, building “a mental health app”, or “producing a film on the dangers of high consumption of High Energy Drinks”. No matter how worthy it sounds, no matter how much it gives us a chance to announce our compassion, we should be wary. Boundless compassion and no evidence won’t save children from mental illness; it will turn schools into a version of Kids Company. Pastoral responsibilities are utterly vital, but we should never forget that the biggest difference we make in children’s lives is by educating them.