Improving mental health and wellbeing issues in young people

Graham Moore from humanutopia reflects on the mental health and wellbeing issues facing young people today and how we need to re-imagine schooling in order to solve this crisis.

Long before Covid; before the word ‘pandemic’ was used daily; there was and still is an enormous mental health crisis in the lives of our young people. Before mental health and wellbeing became a buzzword, a catchphrase, a trend, our kids were suffering in silence for many years before. Without doubt, the two-year disruption to the education of our youth has caused irreparable damage but the real pandemic continues unnoticed and without resolution. Let me explain.

My secondary school life as a student began in 1976 and I experienced seven years of this hidden pandemic first hand. I was a [highly successful] teacher from 1986 through to 2001 and I witnessed almost all my students going through the same experience. In 2004 I set up humanutopia and I have spent the past eighteen years listening to hundreds of thousands of students describe this pandemic to me in graphic detail. These three phases of my life in education span almost five decades but very little has changed and in my opinion things have worsened.

I encourage young people to have big conversations; to dig deep; to soul search. I ask them to contemplate ‘who they are’, who would they like to be? Sadly, I have heard the vast majority of young people with whom I work admit that they are incredibly insecure; that they have no real confidence in themselves; that they don’t know who they really are; that they are scared to be themselves; that they feel less adequate than other students; that they loathe how they look; that they have been made to feel ‘less than’ others; that they have to change and adapt how they look, act and behave to survive in school; that they feel like abject failures in the education system.

It is a damning indictment on our education system that one young person feels like this, let alone generation after generation. Surely the purpose of education is to have the opposite effect. Sadly, for many students, school days really are not the best days of their lives. I have listened to and heard far too many young people say the same things for this not to be real. The feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and pessimism are very real and need to be validated as genuine root causes of anxiety and depression in our youth.

In the hundreds of school staff CPD sessions that I have delivered over the past twenty years, I have heard adults make similar statements about their time in school, many admitting that they had never come to terms with some of their own self-perceptions and remain scarred and damaged by some of their school experiences and memories. Year after year, generation after generation we stand by and do nothing to ameliorate or solve this scourge. We silently allow it to continue without addressing these issues. Our education system is fundamentally flawed because we have the priorities wrong.

The focus in schools, at least in state schools that is, has always been on academic progress and achievement. From almost the first term of their journey through primary school we discreetly assess our youngster’s ability to read and write. Our students are then grouped according to these basic capacities which, at the age of four and five have barely developed anyway. Throughout primary education young people very quickly discover that there are some who can ‘do’ school and some who ‘can’t do’ school. These early childhood experiences of failure and inevitable comparisons with others lead to internalised feelings of shame and exclusion. These feelings then subsequently form programmes of learned behaviour in which students think they can’t do education, adopting a fixed mindset about their abilities and an academic hierarchy is established. I am reminded of the experiment when fleas are trapped in a jar and when the lid is removed, they don’t jump to freedom because their brains have been programmed to jump to a certain height below the lid.

As students approach puberty becoming more socially aware, the importance of this academic hierarchy is lessened as the social hierarchy – or as we call it at humanutopia – the Pecking Order becomes all important. Being cool, being accepted, being included, being liked all become far more important issues for growing teens. Indeed, being good at school becomes a source of derision and embarrassment. In some schools I have heard some students address themselves as the ‘relevants’, leaving others to languish as the ’irrelevants’? The divide between both groups becomes a chasm and causes deeply negative consequences in the minds of many young people.

I have worked in over a thousand schools worldwide with over six hundred thousand students and this process is real. I have listened to and heard too many young people describe their experiences to me for it not to be valid. These experiences, the comparisons, the put-downs, the words all have a hugely negative impact on the self-perception of impressionable young people in their formative years. Meanwhile the cogs of the machine that is our school system keep moving, churning out teenagers every summer who leave school without hope, confidence and belief in themselves or their future.

We, as a society, need to reimagine what schools could and should be. We need to rethink how we can adapt our early years curriculum to focus on personal and social development, encouraging young people to see the beauty in themselves and others. We need to model love, acceptance and tolerance so our youth have a template to copy. We need to intentionally teach social action and social justice for our young people to grow into kind, compassionate and positive citizens who find it easy to love and admire themselves as well as their peers.

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