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Mental Health – Should Secondary Schools Teach Happiness?

The mental health crisis facing 11- to 16-year-olds is never far from the headlines – so could we put wellbeing on the curriculum? We asked the experts for their thoughts...

  • Mental Health – Should Secondary Schools Teach Happiness?

The child psychologist

“‘Happiness’ is not really the right word – happiness only lasts as long as a particular biochemical cascade in the brain – but we can go for a culture in schools that supports emotional wellbeing and calm, relaxed states. Research shows that if you attend to emotional wellbeing in all pupils, academic marks go up. We know from neuroscience how to set up conditions that trigger opioids and oxytocin – wellbeing emotion chemicals – in young people’s brains; the environment has to support their optimal activation. So for example, at the beginning of the school day yoga, tai chi or accompanied drumming; time in a sensory zone; time with animals etc. Also, ‘social buffering’ conversations with emotionally-available adults at school who help the child feel understood and listened to.

“We can’t carry on leaving pupils in high stress states due to our testing and exam culture, which is triggering massive mental illness issues and damaging long-term physical health, too. When wellbeing emotion chemicals are not in dominance in the brain, children and teenagers are too stressed to learn. We can see this from actual brain scans.”

Dr Margot Sunderland is director of education and training at The Centre for Child Mental Health, London


The visiting psychotherapist

“It’s a really complex one. I think schools are in the best position to play a role due to the amount of time our children spend there, and that a lot of our mental health is influenced by our significant caretakers. But there’s a dual relationship to manage: the academic one and the ‘relational’ one. Unless a school’s focus is challenged and changed, the teachers have limited capacity to invest in their relationship with students. And it comes from the top; teachers are given boundaried expectations of what they’re supposed to be doing and that often doesn’t factor in mental health. Schools are focused on academic achievement and employability, but that’s massively impacted by mental health, so unless we’re working with our young people holistically that positive future is never going to happen anyway.”

Alex Carling is a psychotherapist (counsellinginhull.co.uk)


The Year 9 student

“Definitely. How are we supposed to cope with all the pressure of school work and GCSEs if we’re suffering with stress from it all? In school, if you’re struggling they send you to a welfare office and then you feel like you’re all alone, or a weirdo. Lessons for everyone on how to be happy would mean you wouldn’t feel singled out. Do teachers care? Not usually; on PSE days you’re told ‘Go to your teachers with any problems’, but if you do they send you to someone else and treat your problem like it doesn’t matter. The worst part of the stress is that in Year 9 they expect you to know what you want to do with your life. So much is expected – it gets really overwhelming.”

Hannah Manders attends a comprehensive in the Vale of Glamorgan


The head-turned-lecturer

“Schools put a lot of pressure on students, so they need to give them strategies to cope with stress. Whether this amounts to teaching them to be happy is a different matter. Mental health support is vitally important, with more children than ever presenting with mental health issues. But leadership are unlikely to direct their funding in this direction, even if they could afford to, so I suspect such issues will not be well supported in schools. On the whole schools support emotional wellbeing in a general kind of way, but this won’t really touch those who have significant mental health issues. Teachers will be out of their depth, schools don’t have the specialists they need, and external services are hugely oversubscribed with referrals.”

Dr Chris Rolph is principal lecturer at the Nottingham Institute of Education


The school OT

“Schools are ideally placed to make interventions in mental health. Occupational therapists are trained to help people realise their full potential, whether the obstacles are physical or emotional. There are a lot of OTs working in a mental health context in schools in America, but it’s new here. I work in a school for two full days a week, offering three tiers of treatments. The first is universal, supporting positive mental health throughout the whole school by instilling a culture of mindfulness. Year groups are being taught what it is and how it can help, and every teacher has been trained in mindfulness and how to lead meditations. Every Friday there’s an extended registration so teachers get a five-minute script for a meditation in their classroom.

Beyond that we have more intensive interventions that teachers, parents or friends can refer pupils to. A lot of the high performers put a huge amount of pressure on themselves; we look at positive routines and thinking strategies they can implement themselves, because at the end of the day we want to create self managers. Self regulators. Adolescence is such an amazing time when so many constructs, such as self esteem, can stabilise; so it’s a great age to get in there.”

Catherine Wells is an occupational therapist and works with St Louise’s Comprehensive College in West Belfast.


The academic

“The answer is, overwhelmingly, yes. But is the educational system geared up to address the emotional wellbeing of young people? This is less clear. There are guidelines aplenty for teachers and leaders – NICE, PSHE, DfE, Education Endowment Foundation – but what is the reality for teachers and leaders during the six-hour school day when an examination curriculum and performance-driven culture prevail? Would there be any point in a ‘happiness’ GCSE if it also became a part of the measurement and evaluation process, surely a contradiction in terms? And if, as suggested, 84% of teachers have suffered from mental health problems between 2014 and 2016, then how are they supposed to inspire emotional wellbeing in their pupils?

When I was assistant head in a secondary school, my brief was the timetable (not a job I would recommend…) and so the responsibility to allocate and permit ‘time’ for children was immense. I argued that free time is crucial for children to develop and reflect or indeed, just do ‘nothing’ outside the rat-run of demands and activities. The most precious thing a child has – and indeed all of us – is time, and how we use it. It is a greater waste of time to use it ill than to do nothing. But filling our time with endless targets isn’t working, it isn’t happy, and it isn’t education.”

Dr Toby Purser is a senior lecturer in the faculty of education and humanities at the University of Northampton


The numbers game

Is our academically-focused curriculum and culture failing pupils?

  • 24% of girls and nine percent of boys are suffering with depression by the age of 14, government-funded research from University College London and the University of Liverpool reveals
  • 183 referrals are made to CAMHS every single school day, a figure that’s up a third on intervention requests made three years ago according to data obtained by the NSPCC
  • 78% of 14- to 17-year-olds in England think developing a lasting relationship in adult life is more important than their career ambitions, says relationship charity the Family Stability Network
  • £500m of NHS budget should be used to place a mental health professional in every secondary school, asserts the Institute for Public Policy Research
  • 34% of counsellors and psychotherapists who have worked in schools report difficulties with the job, with schools’ poor understanding of their services a frequent barrier

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