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How Can We Directly Prevent and Address Mental Health In Schools? 

Dora Loewenstein, Honorary Member, The Department of Psychiatry, The University of Oxford.

I am extremely grateful to have been given the opportunity to contribute to the new journal. Before I launch into my article, I thought it would be nice to explain my involvement in the arena of mental health and how I became an honorary member of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford.

 

Like many people I have lived a life close to people who have suffered a lifetime of mental health issues, both with my close family and also with friends.

I have suffered the loss of three very close friends who have chosen to take their own lives and have known more acquaintances who have succumbed to the same end. I have close friends who have had severe problems with their own children resulting in them being sent away to rehab, being placed on suicide watch or just being at home living through the issues with other siblings in the mix. For me, it made sense to plunge in to try to help, also to understand what can be done to help what to me seems a burgeoning problem in our society.

I took a course in child psychology online, and simultaneously I was approached, by pure serendipity, by the medical research development team from The University of Oxford. I soon became drawn to the department of Psychiatry with whom I have been working now for the past five years as an honorary member. They are the leading research body in the world on mental health and neurology and what they do is nothing short of brilliant.

I see my role as letting people know precisely how cutting edge they are, and also to try and raise much needed funds for them to continue and widen their important research.

We are working on many projects, some which were sadly paused by the Coronavirus pandemic, to set about addressing the prevention and treatment of mental health problems for our society, most particularly the young.

One in six children between the ages of 5 and 16 suffered from mental health problems in 2020. That figure has moved up from one in nine in a matter of three years.

This number will be on the rise post Covid-19 this year and in the years to follow. We have a duty to address this and it should be done through the portal of education. We crucially need to engage the young to provide much needed research for professors of mental health so that we can provide both preventative measures and solutions for our young. Huge strides have been made in acknowledging and accepting the presence of mental health issues, but without the research it is impossible to treat and prevent this new form of pandemic.

It has long been believed that children/adolescents are mini-adults and have been treated as such in the realm of medicine. It is now known that a child’s brain is not fully developed until full adulthood, which most probably occurs at around the age of 25 for girls and 27 for boys. As a result, their diagnoses and treatments need to be treated entirely differently to that of adults.

What is the solution?

 

There are many steps to be taken to address this crisis in mental health and no better an environment than the classroom. However, this must be done in tandem with doctors and professors specialising in psychiatry and psychology to help with the validation of content for teachers and, also, the young need to be engaged in the process over and above just being taught, so that they participate in providing much needed research. Only then can proper prevention and treatment be provided for our young. Great strides are already being taken to engage with schools. One example where this has already begun is the Myriad Project. Professor Willem Kuyken is the Sir John Ritblat Family Foundation Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science at Oxford University.

“Our aim, as a country, should be provision of mental health counselling in all schools; training for all teachers and for the curriculum to teach children from an early age how the brain works, and to be encouraged to talk openly about their worries.” 

The Myriad Project, under the direction of Willem and partners, has engaged with 84 schools and is training teachers to teach Mindfulness to pupils. Mindfulness is a complex subject, but essentially teaches people to live and engage with the ‘now’, in a manner of different ways, rather than brood over the past, or fear the future.

 

This has been proven to lessen anxiety and stress. The project is measuring, with success, that this is an effective way of reducing mental health issues, and also that it can act as a preventative discipline. The project is one of the first to use its engagement with pupils for data based research in this sphere.

Another good example is Place2be. This is a programme available to schools which provides expert counsellors to go into schools and give teachers, parents and pupils support and advice in matters of mental health. They provide oneto- one counselling for pupils, and parents and also engage and train teachers in how to deal with issues as they arise. Their impact statement and statistics showing the benefits of this service is tangible proof that, not only is the service much needed, but also it works in both reducing children’s anxieties but also in increasing productivity.

Their visible presence in schools also demonstrates to other children that it is acceptable to talk about these issues. This too then spills over to the parents, where oftentimes families are unaccustomed to addressing such issues.

Looking at these two examples, which both show positive gains from their endeavours, it is clear that practices such as these should be accessible to all schools. Sadly, these services are costly to run; both in time and financially - whether they are philanthropic organisations or indeed services schools need to contract.

Our aim, as a country, should be to have a provision for all schools to have mental health counselling available; training for all teachers in how to spot and deal with signs of mental health disorders early on; and for the curriculum to teach children from an early age how the brain works, how to deal with feelings and also to be encouraged to talk openly about personal worries from the earliest stage.

By addressing these issues in the classroom, the pressure is immediately removed from the home, whence the problems often arise or begin. Once the whole subject of mental well-being becomes more acceptable and commonplace, children will in turn be able to address these issues more adeptly whilst at home and cope with them.

I look forward to being part of a pioneering project to introduce a way of providing an instructive course for both teachers and pupils (age appropriate for every year group) that instructs on brain development and varied mental health issues; to introduce an integrated forum to discuss issues; to engage with the young over a range of different problems so that we can learn from them; and to be able to gather data for the experts so that we can begin to properly understand how to prevent and help all those who suffer from the stresses and anxieties of the world in 2021, most specifically now, post covid.

To conclude, I believe teachers need the tools to equip their students with sound information about the issues they face; students need to feel understood and heard, and above all, that they have access to help outside of their home environments. In return for their needs being met, through their engagement with the research, they can be instrumental in creating a new world where prevention and treatment are at the very heart of their world and for those who follow them.