In a survey of parents across the UK, almost 75 per cent of those asked said that they would choose a school based on its approach to pupil well-being over its past examination results. It’s not just parents though, in the Young Minds’ survey of teachers over 80 per cent agree that the pressure of examinations has taken the focus away from what should be the priority - pupil wellbeing.
Quite simply, we are at crisis point. According to Young Minds, 850,000 children aged from 5-16 have mental health problems, with half of all mental illnesses starting before the age of 14. If so many children and young people have severe, diagnosable depression, and they spend over 1,000 hours at school every year, then pupil well-being must be a priority for every school and person involved with children and young people.
So, what can we do to help with the mental health crisis among our young people? I think it is vital to start the focus on emotional and mental well-being early. Emotional literacy can be taught and worked on with children like any other subject. There are countless resources available for working on this with younger children, from simple sessions with worksheets, to board games and flashcards. We do our children a disservice if we aren’t helping to provide them with the language and understanding to navigate their own emotional well-being and communicate potential problems to trusted grownups.
Mindfulness in schools has seen a huge increase in the last few years and while some Christians might be uneasy over mindfulness’ roots, many faith schools are using simple mindfulness programmes as part of their pupil well-being policies. In its simplest form, mindfulness is consciously focusing on the moment, being aware of thoughts, feelings and sensations, and accepting and paying attention to those thoughts and feelings without judging them as right or wrong. Providing children with simple mindful practices that they can draw on during times of emotional stress or anxiety may seem relatively easy, but could be something that makes up that well-being toolbox that children and young people use.
There have been multiple campaigns over the last few years calling for the stigma around mental health problems to end, for us as adults to start conversations with each other about our well-being. I think the most important thing we can do for these hundreds of thousands of children is to help them break the stigma too. Suffering from a mental health problem can be a dark, scary, lonely place; imagine being a child experiencing that and feeling different to your friends, and having the pressure of exams placed on you as well. It is vital that we start conversations with children and young people about their mental health, and that they know their emotional well-being is more important to us than anything. Together, let’s break the stigma and end this crisis.
Lex Bradley is assistant chaplain at Berkhamsted School and has written a book about childhood bereavement.