Mental Health in the Classroom

Earlier this week was Suicide Awareness Day, a time where many talk the talk regarding helping others, speaking up, and raising awareness. Unfortunately, there clearly isn’t enough walking the walk. To understand why the mental health crisis has exacerbated, we must look to the start. A child’s schooling years are the time that can define their whole life, so surely, it’s the time to act. If physical education lessons are compulsory, why isn’t mental health?

I have never, in over 20 years of teaching, seen pupils suffer with so much anxiety and other symptoms of poor mental health”, just the words of one teacher in a recent article from Sally Weale. Mental health issues among teenagers are rising rapidly. It’s estimated that 3 children in each classroom have a diagnosable mental health problem, and the NSPCC says that the number of referrals by schools seeking treatment for pupils has risen by a third in the past three years alone. We’re also seeing alarming rises in youngsters hurting themselves – a 70% increase among 10-14-year-olds in Britain – and 1 in 4 are experiencing suicidal thoughts.

So, what is fuelling this dramatic rise? Firstly, it’s worth noting the reasons are plentiful, and I can hardly do them all justice in a blog post, but let’s look at the main few. One overarching theme is the austerity imposed by Tory governments. Between 2010 and 2015 mental health trusts in England had £600 million slashed from their budgets, there are now 5,000 fewer mental health nurses available, and as such waiting times have doubled in the last decade. Schools have also had their purse strings tightened, with 91% facing real-terms cuts which have even led to parents at various schools being asked to donate money towards vital supplies such as stationary, books, and even toilet paper.

Another is the various changes to the structure of schools, including the increase in testing. English children are among the most tested in the world, right from the first weeks of primary school up until college or work-based learning at 18. As such children are feeling the pressure of education from day 1 leaving them unable to embrace and enjoy their experiences. Arguably the most pressured exams are GCSEs, which have recently been transformed from the traditional lettered system to a new numbered measure ranging from 9-1, where 4 is equivalent to the old C grade. Both teachers and students have had to grapple with the new exams and curriculum with inadequate resources and materials, putting intense pressure on both parties.

The effects of the new exams have been frightening, as Sally Weale highlights here. Some students are facing up to dozens of exams, more than ever before, each requiring dozens of hours of revision, and their mental health is paying the price. One school saw suicide attempts by two students due to exam stress, breakdowns, panic attacks, stress, depression, and increased anxiety. These health issues affect attendance, concentration, retention levels, increases student apathy towards their learning, and this all becomes an increasingly poisonous cycle.

The problems don’t stop at high school either. 2015 figures showed that over 15,000 students had come forward with mental health conditions to their universities – five times the number that did so in 2006. The numbers staying silent will dwarf that 15,000. 40% of students had experienced depression in the past year, and 61% said they have experienced anxiety due to their studies. In 2015 there were 134 student suicides at UK universities, the highest figures on record, and universities are struggling to cope with the resource demand.

The average university has just one counsellor per 1737 students and less than a third have a specific mental health and wellbeing strategy to help their students in need. University is a time where mental health issues generally exacerbate and worsen as students are generally a long way from home, dealing with academic, financial, and social pressure, and are at increased risk of developing addictions to drink, drugs, and even lifestyles such as gambling.

So, how are institutions looking to fight back? One college, UCLA, offered all incoming students a free online screening for depression. More than 2700 students opted for the screening, and 250 have now had follow up meetings with counsellors. Virginia Tech University has opened new clinics to reach students where they spend the most time; even the local Starbucks has one installed. Ohio State University has launched a new mobile app for students to make appointments with counsellors, access exercises and playlists, and contact the clinic in an emergency.

The problem, however, is that despite these niche ideas, a lack of funding generally means that the most important resources and services for students are lacking. Whilst colleges and universities turn to practices such as yoga sessions, mindfulness, and even bringing in pets to relax pressured and worried students, there is generally a lack of assistance and long-term care in place.

We need to be teaching children at a young age about their mental health. We should be teaching them how to cope with stress and anxiety. We need to be teaching them how to notice warning signs, how to take care of themselves, what treatments are available, and that there is no shame in asking for help. In the UK we need to overhaul the education and examination system to take the pressure off our students. There is no need for 3 sets of exams at 14, 16, and 18. Finally, mental health needs the funding it deserves, not just thrown into the health care budget, but into other sectors such as education. It’s time to start walking the walk.


Brexit, the Mental Health Syndrome

If it’s somehow passed you by, we are a few months away from self-destruction. The likelihood of a no deal Brexit has drastically increased after recent events in the commons, and contingency plans are now being formed for such a scenario. Industries are planning to stockpile foods, medicines, and fuel if we crash out of the European Union, and the Army are being put on standby to ferry supplies around the country to those without easy access to such goods.

The future of healthcare after Brexit is especially precarious. The government plans to leave the single market and customs union, the arrangements that currently deliver health services, goods, and workforce to the UK. The economy will be taking a drastic hit at a time when the NHS is already chronically underfunded, and pressures are all year round. But there’s one area that doesn’t receive the amount of attention it deserves, the effect of Brexit on mental health.

Firstly, there was the decision itself. To many, the vote to leave was a complete shock and brought about feelings of insecurity due to the uncertain political, economic and personal consequences ahead. All of our lives are dependent on the future deal struck by the government, but especially so are the lives of the 3.2 million EU citizens in the UK and the 1.2 million UK citizens living or working across the EU. For two years now, their lives have been in limbo, unsure of their rights after March 2019. The UK and EU agreed in principle late last year for the same rights to apply to both parties, but a no deal Brexit would throw that out of the window.

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Mental Health in a Busy Life

Juggling work, projects, education, a social life, and finding time for yourself is incredibly tough. When you add into the mix poor mental health, the problems are only heightened, and it’s easy for everything to get on top of you. You find yourself overwhelmed, stressed, your mental health flares, but you don’t have the time to look after yourself. I work full time, have my own place to keep on top of, personal projects I work on, and this really doesn’t leave too much time for much else.

As I’ve written about before here, I am someone who needs to keep myself busy – whether it’s at work or at home. All in all, this is usually a big positive for me and my mental health. The problem is that when I am stuck in a rut and my mental health is a mess, it can be extremely difficult for me to escape terrible thoughts. This then brings other issues including a lack of productivity, and a lack of want to focus on other areas including my social life.

I do struggle with socialising and putting myself out there, and a busy life only adds to that problem. We all have those days where we wake up and say “Right! Today’s the day, a new me”. You imagine yourself becoming this ultra-version of yourself. You’re going to excel at work, take on new projects, pamper yourself, make new friends, and have this incredible social life. Now, usually, by the next day, this has disbanded, and your mental health takes the hit.

Is it even possible to become that person? The one you imagine? No of course not, nothing could compare to that. But here are a few tips to find a better mix and manage your busy life alongside your mental health at the same time.

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A Year in Review

What a year it’s been – both for me, and this blog. When asked to describe 2017, people will think Brexit and the election, and despite watching the news in horror for most of the year, this has at least been good for my blog. I definitely haven’t had a shortage of items to write about. At the start of the year, I set myself the challenge of posting a piece a week, and I’ve kept to that without it (in my opinion) being detrimental to the quality.

So, what’s happened this year in my personal life? Not much to be honest. After the host of changes in 2016 which included graduating, new job, moving into my own flat, 2017 has been quiet. I’ve had a good year at work where I’ve had a raise, took on some side projects, and feel I’m getting closer to a promotion. Outside of work I’ve been involved in a lot of my own projects which I’m excited for, but currently I, unfortunately, do not have the time to knuckle down on them as much as I’d like.

2017 is also a year where my mental health has been relatively kind to me. Bar some low points in the autumn I’ve been fairly in control throughout the year, and I hope that can continue into the new year. One disappointment personally is that I am still very single. I obviously do not want to rush into a relationship for the sake of it, but I have been single for a long time now and am extremely sick of it. So, what are some of my highlights of the year…

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The Loneliness Epidemic – and My Experiences

For a long time, loneliness has been the hidden demon plaguing so many people and only recently has it finally started to become a hot topic. We are living in a more disconnected society than ever, and loneliness has escalated into an epidemic. More and more people are living alone, and people are spending more time alone as well. In fact, we are the ‘loneliest’ country in Europe. The knock-on effects of this are plentiful, and a big issue to be solved because of the close relationship between loneliness and mental health.

Loneliness has been proved to be linked to increased stress, depression, anxiety, addictions, suicides, and even onto physical health issues such as dementia, high-blood pressure, and self-harm. Loneliness among those in work costs employers around £2.5bn a year and is shown to be twice as bad for older people’s health as obesity and almost as great a cause of death as poverty. This increased the burden on an already strained NHS, so it’s vital that the issues are addressed now.

Generally, when the topic of loneliness is raised it is regarding elderly who live on their own, typically after losing their partner. But often those that are forgotten are young people, who tend to feel lonely more often than those over 55. “Loneliness is a recognised problem among the elderly – there are day centres and charities to help them,” says Sam Challis who works for Mind, but for young people, there aren’t the same services to assist them.

So why is this? Is it simply we’re becoming less social? A poll from YouGov earlier this week would suggest so. Millennials are notably less likely to want to engage with others compared to their elders, with 18-34-year olds more likely to avoid talking to others across all scenarios put forward. Of course, this isn’t the issue, as let’s face it not many people like talking to strangers.

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My Self Care Activities

When you suffer from a mental illness, it’s important that you regularly engage in self-care to give your mental health the same attention as your physical health. It’s easy to forget to look after ourselves from time to time, especially when life gets tough and stressful. This is where self-care comes in. Self-care is simply the act of caring for yourself and doing things that you enjoy and benefit from. Whether it’s exercise, relaxing, indulging, introverting, whatever helps you is good!

The first act of self-care is to arguably get to know yourself and learn to spot the signs of when you are struggling to cope. Once you become aware of these signs, it means you can sense them coming, and even plan to combat them. You might find that different activities help with individual situations, and there is not one kind of self-care that fits all for you. Therefore, it’s useful to build yourself a self-care plan, something you can go to. These can be individual plans for specific events, times, and places; you can know what the issues are, and from that know the steps you can take to help make yourself feel better.

Here are some of my self-care activities that may resonate with you:

Keeping myself busy/projects
I am someone who always needs the next project to work on, the next blog post to write, and without that it’s quite easy for me to feel lost. Projects, essays, and lectures at University, loathed by most, was used as a form of self-care for me. Ploughing myself into work was a distraction, albeit not always a healthy one. Even now I like to keep myself as busy as I can whether it be at work or at home.

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The Perfect Image Problem

A significant part of the past 5-6 years of my life have revolved around struggles with body image, and initially my weight. When I was younger I had previously attempted to lose weight a few times without any success, but after seeing some pictures of myself at a Sixth Form event when I was 16, I decided that enough was enough. Over the next few months I lost a lot of weight, and by the time I was 19, I had lost just under 4 stone – around 50 pounds.

Surely that would be enough right? Problem is it’s never really been enough for me. And I feel that’s also a problem for a lot of other people too. Although there were other factors much more significant to the onset of my depression and other mental health issues, I do think that my weight loss and body image issues have considerably contributed towards it. I always feel that I just need to lose a couple more pounds, or lose just a little more body fat, but will it ever be enough?

There’s no doubt that body image issues in guys are becoming more prevalent, and the frequency of these leading into other mental health issues is alarming. There is a whole host of reasons for this, but one of the biggest, as it is for women, is certainly the media, especially social media. As Raymond Lemberg states, “the media has become more of an equal opportunity discriminator, men’s bodies are not good enough anymore either.” There’s the pressure to look as good as the actor that all the girls fawn over or the models on social media; to have the perfect abs, the muscles, the flowing hair, and be six feet plus all with good taste in fashion.

As someone who’s 5’10, has a quickly receding hairline, is fairly toned but without abs, and lacks muscles, it’s very easy to just not feel good enough. I know I’m in good shape, in good health, and I know I’ve made incredible progress over the last few years (see the picture below), but it never feels like enough. Another problem for men is that the “perfect” male image seems to combine being lean and slim but with bulk too, and that’s just ridiculously impossible.

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