This morning on Twitter the fabulous TraceyPallett (who tweets as @ehohsaysyes) raised the topic of when, and how mental health or well-being should be taught. [Update: Tracey has since written a post collating the information from this morning, the importance of education and what it could mean to the future].

Having been doing quite a lot of regression work in therapy the thoughts of school days have been in my mind recently and I feel it is important to share a particularly triggering incident within a class. There of course were many but this one relates directly to mental health education.

The school had PSHE lessons each term in each year, however, mental health/well-being, to my recollection, was never covered. I went to an independent girls’ school so it was a highly pressurised environment. When I was in my first year of senior school a friend’s sister killed herself whilst my friend and her parents were at parents’ evening. Although this tragic event was mentioned in assembly there were no follow up classes or discussions about it.

The first and only time there was any mention of mental illness was during an optional general studies class in sixth form. I can’t remember how but the discussion turned to suicide and self harm.

By this point I had been self harming for about a year and had tried to kill myself once. The school had been made aware of this via my parents, my teachers were all informed.

The class was being led by one of the psychology teachers who was fairly new to the school. She spoke about “committing suicide” and used all the other incredibly negative terminology associated with it. The class as a whole spoke   of people who had ‘tried hanging themselves but when found looked as if they’d tried to stop themselves’, how they ‘couldn’t understand self harm’, ‘why anyone would do it’, how ‘they were selfish and stupid for not knowing things would be better tomorrow’. I was lost for words, disturbed that the whole class bar myself and my friend (who by this point was holding me to stop my shaking and scratching at my cuts) could be so ignorant especially after what had happened earlier in our school life. The fact that the teacher just agreed with the class made me feel more worthless and stupid than I already did.

I wasn’t brave enough back then to stand up and face those people (a lot of whom had bullied me through the years) and say what it really felt like to be in that situation where life is just empty and the only thing tomorrow brings is more despair.

The only other education offered about mental health or well being was what EDs did to your body, basically it was a biology lesson. This of course was not practical help either. I was just one of many in the school with an ED. This was mentioned in Year 11 so by that point the psychological factors behind our EDs were well formed. However, none of this was explained, nor was there any advice on recovery. The whole hour felt like a shaming exercise and to me just something else I failed at.

In general the teachers were ill equipped to handle mental health issues. The school had a psychologist and the teachers who didn’t understand kept trying to refer me to her, however, as my mother had taught her daughter and I knew things about the psychologist which did not sit right with me I felt I could not trust her. I explained this to the teachers who told me I was paranoid, she was impartial and to just forget the previous knowledge of her.

I was lucky to one teacher and the school nurse who both seemed to understand mental health who I could turn to and tell them how I felt.

My experience with school makes me believe that mental well being should be taught from infant school as this is where a lot of experiences can begin with bullying for example. I know that in a lot of PSHE (or equivalent) classes children are already taught that bullying is wrong, about family relationships (for example divorcing parents) and exam pressures. However, to link these to keeping mentally well would be far more beneficial. For example children learning that being bullied is not their fault rather than just being told not to do it.

As the children progress through school more in depth mental health education can be introduced to cover aspects such as low self esteem, abandonment, defectiveness, failure to achieve, abuse. The list is endless.

To have teachers trained in mental health and well being would also be helpful in giving them understanding of what their students are going through and in this way offer more support to them. I found my lecturers at Uni to be far more accommodating and understanding.

I feel like I may have let future generations at the school down by not voicing my opinion on that day and hope no one else suffered through that awkward lesson as I did.

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