The importance of education in tackling and preventing mental illness

“Education is the movement from darkness to light.” – Allan Bloom

One in four adults and one in five children will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year (Mental Health Foundation, 2015). Worldwide, around 450 million people suffer from a mental disorder today. (Mental Health Foundation, 2007)

It’s no secret. Mental health problems play a major part in many lives, irrespective of race, gender, religion or background, and pose an ongoing challenge to modern society and its decision makers.

Yet, whether owing to a lingering lack of awareness and understanding of mental health issues, funding problems or the ‘invisible’ nature of mental disorders, the way in which such problems are tackled remains something of a barrier to support and recovery for many sufferers and their loved ones.

Inadequate investment in prevention, through raising awareness and educating people, has been cited as a particular concern amongst sufferers, in a recent survey conducted by NHS England. (2015) Out of 2,500 respondents, a quarter placed prevention in their top three priorities for improvement and nine per cent highlighted prevention work in schools.

Furthermore, as a category of illness that is predicted to surpass cancer, heart disease and diabetes in terms of financial cost in the next 15 years, (Harvard School of Public Health and the World Economic Forum, 2011) it seems short-sighted that mental wellbeing isn’t receiving the same injection of resources and investment as physical wellbeing. There unfortunately appears to remain a severe and dangerous disconnect between educating children on the importance of keeping their body healthy and the importance of keeping their mind healthy.

In fact, this physical-mental distinction itself is false on a number of levels. Firstly, the brain is very obviously a vital part of the human body, so shouldn’t it be treated as such and by extension, shouldn’t it therefore require the same care and attention as any other part?

Secondly, the brain is responsible for controlling the rest of our body (whether automatically, subconsciously or consciously) which should support the case for taking mental health equally, if not more seriously than physical. As of yet, we can’t survive without or substitute our brain. So, why is the importance of a healthy mind still sidelined by physical health? Both are important and work to support one another but it’s time that the former was talked about more.

Further to this point, the final issue with this distinction is it appears to overlook the significant impact mental wellbeing has on the rest of the body. Poor mental health can cause severe and very real physical side effects elsewhere. From headaches and numbness and tingling to palpitations, exhaustion and nausea, mental illness is certainly not all in the mind. Depending on the nature and severity of the disorder, sufferers can even become too physically ill to work. This goes without the mention of back, shoulder, neck, jaw, hip and even hand pain caused by the tension and stress associated with conditions such as anxiety and depression.

A strong proven link between poor mental health and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer (Mental Health Foundation, 2015) adds further impetus to the argument for more joined up thinking. Poor physical health is a known risk factor for mental illness; poor mental health is a known risk factor for physical illness and yet the progress towards a more holistic approach appears somewhat sluggish.

With this distinction challenged, it becomes increasingly apparent that more needs to be done to educate and inform children and young adults on not just what mental illness is but on how they can look after their own mental health to help protect themselves against such problems occurring later on.

Waiting for people to become ill before you give them treatment and advice is seen as inefficient and dangerous in the case of measles, mumps and rubella. So, why should the approach toward mental illness be any different? Surely children should be equipped from an early age with the knowledge and support to prevent mental illness in the same way that they’re given a vaccination to protect them from disease. Mental illness may not be directly life-threatening, but it certainly can be life-ruining.

This is not to say that the provision of mental health support and education, especially within UK schools, has not improved over the years. It has. A strong emphasis is now placed on teachers and pastoral carers identifying those who may be suffering from mental illness or those at risk of developing it. (Department for Education, 2015) There has also been some progress towards incorporating mental health education into the PSHE programme. (PSHE Association, 2015)

But, whilst evidently mental healthcare can only be allocated a limited amount of funding, it seems the right balance has yet to be struck. Countless first-hand accounts of six month plus waiting lists for NHS support services suggest the demand for mental health support simply isn’t being met. The services are scarily oversubscribed and the staff overstretched but the real question is, why are so many adults seeking this kind of help? And what can be done to solve it?

The answer isn’t simple by any stretch of the imagination. But if more funding and resources were directed towards prevention, as with physical health, the initial investment would not only improve lives, reduce the severity of issues and improve happiness and wellbeing, but also save the health service considerable amounts of money in the long-run.

As a young adult who has received treatment from both the child and adult branches of the NHS mental health service, I feel that a lot of the challenges I faced and continue to face could have been avoided or at least lessened had I been provided with the knowledge and techniques I received in treatment, at an early stage. Until I was encouraged to understand that my thoughts are not always absolute and true and was taught to be conscious of their often destructive nature, there was no way I could escape.

I was stuck in a vicious cycle of negative and destructive thinking and I wasn’t even aware of it. All I knew was I felt sad and angry and frustrated and useless all the time. I would never be good enough and that was that.

Without learning about cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), relaxation exercises or the structure of the brain, I would still be stuck in that hole. Yet, I am acutely aware that not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to such services or feels able to seek help, whatever the reason.

That is why I believe that it’s time mental health education and illness prevention was incorporated more seriously into the school system. After all, how can you expect children to solve the problems of today if they’re too busy battling the thoughts in their own mind?

References

Mental Health Statistics: Anxiety. Mental Health Foundation. 2015.  [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-statistics/anxiety-statistics/. [Accessed 06 December 2015].

The Fundamental Facts. Mental Health Foundation. 2007. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/content/assets/PDF/publications/fundamental_facts_2007.pdf?view=Standard. [Accessed 07 December 2015].

The Five Year Forward View Mental Health Taskforce: public engagement findings. NHS England. 2015. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/mentalhealth/wp-content/uploads/sites/29/2015/09/fyfv-mental-hlth-taskforce.pdf. [Accessed 07 December 2015].

The Global Economic Burden of Non-communicable Diseases. Harvard School of Public Health and the World Economic Forum. 2011. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Harvard_HE_GlobalEconomicBurdenNonCommunicableDiseases_2011.pdf. [Accessed 06 December 2015].

Physical Health and Mental Health . 2015. Mental Health Foundation. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/policy/physical-health-and-mental-health/. [Accessed 07 December 2015].

Mental health and behaviour in schools: Departmental advice for school staff. Department for Education. 2015. [ONLINE] Available at:https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/416786/Mental_Health_and_Behaviour_-_Information_and_Tools_for_Schools_240515.pdf. [Accessed 07 December 2015].

PSHE Association . 2015.  [ONLINE] Available at: https://pshe-association.org.uk/resources_search_details.aspx?ResourceId=570&Keyword=&SubjectID=0&LevelID=0&ResourceTypeID=3&SuggestedUseID=0. [Accessed 07 December 2015].

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