Updated: Sep 2
Within the past 10 years, there has been a massive mental health awakening. From the ‘Free Britney’ movement to Simone Biles taking control of a situation by making important choices relating to her mental health, we have come so far in how we view mental health, and how we express it. With all of this happening, you would expect secondary school’s curriculum to support and reflect this. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
As someone who suffers with mental health issues - and has been in the British education system all my life - I have noticed so many flaws and failings in what has been repeated to me from such a young age. From completely ill-educated explanations of anxiety and depression, to not even mentioning common conditions like borderline personality disorder and eating disorders, the system that we have been taught since before we can remember is deeply flawed, and usually ends up with students coming away feeling that they: a) aren’t ill enough; b) that they can’t match their symptoms with the explanation that has been given; or c) are completely unaware of their condition.
I can remember getting taught about anxiety. There were tropes that occurred in every class. The symptoms were always presented as a constant state of panic attacks, there were always massive events that happened in the character’s life which created the anxiety, and there was always ‘worry and stress is a different thing’, which just reminded me that I probably didn’t suffer from mental illness. I must just be dramatic.
Depression was much the same thing. Unless you physically couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t move without self harming, and never felt even an ounce of joy, you were probably just sad. And, though we didn’t realise it, the school was gaslighting us so much that we didn’t believe ourselves.
This is also proven by the absence of any lesson plan that was written for a teenager. Either everything was written in comic sans, only had simple explanations and was full of wordsearches, or it felt like it was made for someone with a master’s in psychology. There was no point when I felt like I fit into the group of people who have a mental disorder, or who deserved to be diagnosed, even though 70% of mental illnesses begin in childhood or adolescence1 .
Countless classes spoke about how to eat healthily, how to exercise, how obesity is so prevalent in society; but not once have I ever had a lesson talking about eating disorders. Though I have had classes on being happy in your own skin, that’s a far cry from facing the stigma and just saying the words ‘eating disorder’. Counting calories was praised instead of prevented, so much so that there is now a programme that is intended to write calories in menus, something which is one of the most triggering things for people with eating disorders.
There were constant PE lessons, where there was always a last to be picked, and races against each other which pick out the athletic from the less athletic: But there were never any lessons about how it’s not shameful to not be involved in exercise that’s intended to lose weight, rather than to just feel good. The curriculum needs balance and to tell students that a healthy body is never complete without a healthy mind.
As well as this, teachers need to be educated about mental health conditions. We can clearly see a need for this in the treatment of students with eating disorders, as often teachers could trigger students by talking about their own weight negatively, or over analysing the food that they eat, and with no idea how to speak to recovering ed patients. It is also common with other mental health issues. Personally, I never forgave myself for anything that, although I didn’t realise it, was a cause of my mental illness as my teachers didn’t consider it either. Ittook me until year 11 to find a teacher who understood what I was going through and helped me to not persecute myself for not feeling perfect.
I am, by no means, saying that there aren’t teachers who care. I have had the delight of meeting many who helped and supported me through what I was feeling, and I am forever grateful. What I am saying though, is that the lesson plans for my PSHE lessons were completely useless, and teachers also need guidance in how to help others. So, I am going to suggest an outline for what these classes should look like- written by a mentally ill teenager. I hope this helps someone.
POINT ONE- Ditch the PowerPoints. The last thing we need is a boring presentation we have seen a million times, which gaslights us. What we really need is some real-life examples. Speak about a time you were low, or someone you know that had a mental illness. I promise you that students are more likely to respond if you speak honestly about real people, instead of stock photos with no real character apart from the copy-and-paste of symptoms from the NHS website.
POINT TWO- Educate your teachers. It is important that they understand triggers, causes and how to handle episodes without exacerbating the situation: We want to avoid implementingeating disorder behaviours on pupils by making them unhealthily conscious of how they look and what they eat. It’s also really important that teachers are able to recognise symptoms of mental illness amongst their students so we can attempt to plateau and even reduce the number struggling alone.
POINT THREE- Just because it’s not in the curriculum, doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about. As I said, conversations about eating disorders could honestly save someone’s life. Speaking of body dysmorphia in an open environment could spark someone to realise who they are- could help someone understand and learn to love themselves.
In the end, though we may not realise it, teenagers are still vulnerable, and susceptible to be swayed by society’s views, stigmas, and ignorance. I’m not promising to revolutionise the school system, or to end mental illness forever, but I do believe that these steps could transform and save lives, and help people come to realisations about their mental health, by creating a safe and supportive environment for students.