Mental health in schools - symptoms and causes

When faced with any illness - with any problem, come to think of it - you can choose to address the causes or the symptoms.

Growing up with a doctor for a mum, I knew this only too well. As a sickly child, I'd often sidle up to her and say, in a brave, tremulous voice that I wasn't feeling very well. More often than not, her response was no-nonsense: she'd ask if I'd had a poo, and then give me a paracetamol crushed up in a spoon of honey. Often I found this infuriating, as I wanted her to get me x-rays, investigations and operations - to wonder why I felt unwell and try to solve the problem.

Of course, my mum was right. More often than not, dealing with symptoms is more effective than worrying about the underlying problem. But when the problem persists, just sticking with the symptoms is foolish, and it's important to know when to switch from controlling symptoms to dealing with underlying causes.

Psychotherapist Nick Totton tells the (apocryphal) story of two Buddhist monks walking along a river, who see first one, then more people floating downstream, flailing their arms and shouting for help. Both wade in and try to rescue the drowning people, but as the numbers mount up, one gets out of the river and runs upstream. The monk in the river shouts to his friend "Where are you going? These people need help!" To which the monk now running up the riverbank replies "I'm going to find who's throwing them in". (You can find his better telling of this story here, from page 4 onwards).

 More than a third of female students have 'mental health problems' (BBC)

More than a third of female students have 'mental health problems' (BBC)

The lesson is clear: at a certain point we need to switch our attention from the people who are suffering to the causes of their suffering.

 Stress driving quarter of teachers to take medication (TES)

Stress driving quarter of teachers to take medication (TES)

I was reminded of this lesson when I read a couple of things this week about the epidemic of mental health problems children are experiencing, about the difficulties schools have in providing support for them, and about the increasing levels of mental illness within staff within the education sector. 

 Half of schools are struggling to get mental health services for pupils (TES)

Half of schools are struggling to get mental health services for pupils (TES)

There is a crisis. Increasing numbers of people are floating downstream, unable to get out of the water, and there's less of us to help rescue them. Indeed, many of us are ending up being washed down ourselves. So maybe now is the time to find out why - to address the causes - rather than complaining about a lack of resources for symptomatic relief.

So, why is there a crisis? Well, we have a pretty good idea about what's troubling young people and teachers at the moment: social media, parental pressure, unrealistic expectations, poor management, workload, cyber-bullying, bullying, etc. etc. The list goes on, and is probably pretty accurate, but if that's the case, what are we doing about it? If we know that all of these are causes of the crisis, why aren't we addressing these rather than giving symptomatic relief through talking therapies and medication? Why are we advocating for more mental health provision (which generally only aims at symptomatic relief, especially if it's the NHS's therapy of choice - CBT) rather than advocating for curricula and working practices which do not cause the problems in the first place?

 Childhood Mental Health (Philhills)

Childhood Mental Health (Philhills)

This time last year I wrote about how we need to start listening to the message that mental health problems are sending us, as well as treating them. The rise in childhood mental health issues, and the rise in teacher mental health issues, are both telling us something important about the system we're a part of.

Think of it this way: if you taught a maths lesson and most of the children left with misunderstandings about what you'd taught, you'd be stupid not to correct them - to address and cure the symptoms. But you'd be even stupider if you went on to teach the same lesson, in the same way, to subsequent classes, ignoring the message the symptoms had sent. If we continue to see mental health as nothing but a symptom, we will be just like that teacher.