In the last few years, mental health issues have received significant media attention, partly due to successful campaigning by mental health charities and partly due to high-profile individuals – from Prince Harry to Professor Green – speaking publicly about their own experiences. This has helped to remove some of the stigma and has encouraged people to seek appropriate support and help.
However, there is still a lack of education available on this serious topic. Specialist charities such as the Shaw Mind Foundation have argued that introducing compulsory lessons on mental health in schools can reduce the strain on the NHS, industry and economy. It has been suggested that normalising mental health issues, through compulsory mental health education, will allow children to feel confident enough to open up to each other. This, in turn, will also foster a more proactive society, better equipped for dealing with mental illness.
In response, the Department of Education for England announced in July 2018 that from 2020, health education is to be made compulsory in all schools in England, except in independent schools (who will continue to have compulsory Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education). The statutory requirements will not apply to sixth form colleges, 16 – 19 academies or Further Education colleges, although these bodies are encouraged to provide similar education.
The draft guidance issued by the Government states that for primary schools, the focus will be on teaching the characteristics of good physical health and mental wellbeing. By the end of primary school, pupils should know that mental wellbeing is a normal part of daily life, in the same way as physical health. Children are expected to understand that there is a normal range of emotions (e.g. happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and nervousness) and the scale of emotions will differ depending on a person’s experience and/or situation. They will also learn that it’s common for people to experience mental ill-health, and gain an understanding of how to recognise the triggers and how to seek support.
For secondary schools, the focus will be to enable pupils to understand how they are feeling and why, and to further develop the language that they use to talk about their bodies, health and emotions. Students will also learn why terms associated with mental/physical health difficulties should not be used disparagingly. By the end of secondary school, pupils will be expected to know how to talk about their emotions accurately and sensitively, how to recognise the early signs of mental wellbeing issues and common types of mental ill-health (e.g. anxiety and depression).
The guidance only sets out core areas and schools will have the flexibility to design and plan age-appropriate subject content. In particular, schools will be free to determine how they address LGBT+ specific content (given that those identifying as LGBT+ are at higher risk of poor mental health). However, it is recommended that LGBT+ issues are integral throughout the programmes of study.
It is expected that a debate will occur in the House of Commons, alongside the final draft of the guidance, in the first half of 2019.
Meanwhile, across the border Samaritans Cymru are calling for compulsory health education to also be introduced in Wales, as well as for basic mental health awareness training for all teachers in Wales. Kirsty Williams, the Education Minister for Welsh Government, announced in May 2018 that the study of mental health will form part of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE), a statutory part of Wales’ new curriculum which will be in place from 2022. It is hoped that RSE will ensure that pupils/students in Wales will receive similar compulsory mental health education as is being introduced in England.