CW: This article discusses topics of mental illness which could be distressing to some readers.
In 2015, the UN publicly revealed their seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (the 'SDGs') that they wished to achieve globally by the year 2030. The third goal seeks to promote mental health and well-being so everyone can fulfil their potential. As for schools, they want to provide quality education throughout childhood so students can fully realise their rights and are empowered in their skills. They also clearly state that the education must be equal for everyone, regardless of disability.
But with one in six children aged five to sixteen being identified with a probable mental health problem (a huge increase from one in nine in 2017), can we honestly believe that we are fostering this inclusivity for that fifth of children in the classroom?
In this article, we will together explore the UK's learning approach and how it has influenced both the teen years of my peers and the mental health of our students today.
Understanding student's mental health
People my age can relate when I talk about the many exam upheavals the UK education system has gone through in the past ten years. We were the first year group to sit the SPAG SAT in 2013. Similarly, we became the first year group to become fully awarded with the 'improved' 1-9 grading system from our GCSE's in 2018. Not only were we often confused about what our grades were equivalent to by the old letter-based system, but we also questioned what skills the examiners looked for in us students. Whenever a classmate of mine asked a teacher what we should do to achieve our desired grade they often said they actually didn't know themselves. The system was new and they were given little guidance from the government about the different standards of work required.
So their expectations were vague, leaving students feeling lost. Meanwhile, the expectations the government did have were actually unrealistic.
The Department of Education explained that part of their choice to integrate these new systems was to stretch the most able students to loftier intellectual heights. But, what about students with existing mental disabilities? In order to fulfil the UN's desire for equality, the exams and learning standards set up for students must be adaptable to the learning approaches of both neurotypical and neurodivergent children. Their skills must grow organically. Without this consideration, only unnecessary strain will be added to their mental health.
The academic stress placed upon children can become a factor in poor mental health itself. The academic pressure schools increasingly place upon their students adds stress about their potential futures and well-being in life. I can assure you that the results-day horror stories our headteacher told us in assemblies of children sobbing for their 'bad' grades did nothing for my anxious mind or the minds of my friends.
Their working futures
On the GOV.uk covering of the decision to change the grading system, they highlighted that their decision was informed by the need to "better prepare students for further study and work".
When I met the requirements to be provided with a separate room to sit my exams my pastoral manager shared her discouragement with my Mum. She told her that if I was given this assistance now she would fear for how I would ever manage to cope in somewhere like an office. Not only was my struggle with my exam anxiety and overstimulation erased, but there was also an expectation for me to simply 'deal' with these issues, and assimilate myself into the working world regardless of any possible stress on my mental health.
This should not have to be the case. If we want the UK to align itself with the UN's SDGs, we need to ensure that both our work and school environments feel affirming and encouraging for everyone's mental needs and learning styles. That way there would be no need to repress their disabilities in school in the first place. The working world needs to change for future generations, not the other way around.
The positive awareness
Thankfully there are platforms for those with first-hand experience of mental disorders that are becoming increasingly accessible to students and aids in propelling mental health into public view.
Daniel Howell is a perfect example of a content creator with this amount of influence in my own life. In 2017, he posted the YouTube video 'Daniel and Depression' to his large teen audience. The video shares some basic information about the condition as well as his own experiences grappling with it. This is not done without the interspersed skits and relatable humour popular at the time. It was both informative to those unaware of depression's impact and comforting for those watching Dan normalise their experiences.
Internet Content Creators, like Dan, have encouraged my generation to become supportive of their peers struggling with mental health and take a stand on how those issues are approached at school.
But what about you?
It can be overwhelming to think of where to even begin with advocating for mental health. But you don't have to 'go big or go home'. Change begins with educating yourself and then contributing that knowledge to the wider awareness of others. So what can you do to assist inclusive school learning?
It can start with looking for resources that can assist your own understanding of mental health, even if you yourself are healthy. Resources like Daniel Howell's book 'You Will Get Through This Night', can provide information on mental illness and coping strategies both in a moment of crisis and preventative skills psychiatrists recommend. After all, it doesn't hurt to develop your own tools for self-help. More and more information is being made accessible like this as research uncovers new ways to benefit our well-being and aid those around us.
There are also many ways to encourage wider change to government policies to align them more with the UN's goals. As an ambassador of the charity, Daniel Howell was who made me aware of Young Minds campaigns, such as for changes in the Ofsted framework to be more inclusive of mental health in 2019. Mind is also an amazing resource for both learning, and getting involved with campaigns to emphasise the changes to be made in the country in approaching mental health treatment.
Finally, keep an eye on GOV.uk's petitions in this area, as when a hundred-thousand signatures are submitted it gets taken for debate in Parliament. Even if nothing comes of the debate, the tangible impact of those signatures raises the awareness needed for further advocacy for student mental health.
With all that is being done to advocate for change, the future for mental health in schools is looking bright. Many like myself have had to learn as we grew older that we were not alone in navigating academic stress. It will be a beautiful thing when students are shown that from the beginning within the classroom.