Why teaching about mental health is so important
According to a 2019 survey conducted by the mental health charity Mind, the mental health of students, particularly those in secondary school, is a significant problem. The study assessed around 12,000 students between the ages of 11 and 19, and concluded that 59% of the participants have experienced a mental health problem, or are close to someone who has. The survey also disclosed that 14% of the students ranked their mental health as being poor or very poor.
Students today face a huge amount of pressure and stress, with many having to deal with higher academic workloads than any previous generation. A poor work-life balance, along with pressures to achieve certain grades to get into university, and unprecedented financial responsibilities to study for their degree, all lead to many students feeling overwhelmed, with anxiety and depression being all too common.
It is important to teach students (and adults) to notice any signs of mental health problems in themselves and others. In the same way that we teach people to be attentive to the onset of physical ailments, it is just as incumbent on us to educate ourselves to be watchful to the onset of any mental health ailments.
Everyone goes through days when they feel down and unenthusiastic, but if these feelings persist over weeks or months, and have no obvious cause, they may be suffering from depression.
Signs someone may have depression:
- Pronounced and persistent feelings of sadness and apathy.
- An alteration in sleep habits.
- An alteration in appetite, such as being indifferent to eating, or binging on certain foods.
- An uncharacteristic pessimistic outlook on life.
Anxiety is generally defined as a long running feeling of fear and apprehension pervading someone`s day to day life. Very often these feelings will have a negative impact on everyday activities, preventing the individual from carrying out basic tasks and finding enjoyment in life.
The most common symptoms of anxiety may include the following:
- Feeling irritable throughout the day.
- Having difficulty concentrating.
- Stomach cramps and/or diarrhoea - pain in the abdomen which may manifest as symptoms of IBS (irritable bowel symptom).
3. Eating disorders
A 2005-2007 study undertaken by the National Library of Medicine revealed that as many as 11-17% of female college students, and 4% of male college students suffered from some kind of eating disorder. The condition is generally defined as an irregularity in eating habits, and an intense preoccupation with one`s body image.
The following are some of the most common eating disorders:
- Anorexia Nervosa - The NHS defines this as a serious eating disorder and mental health condition, where those afflicted strive to keep their weight as low as possible by either denying themselves food, excessively exercising, or both. Both men and women can suffer from the condition, but it most commonly affects young women, with symptoms manifesting in mid teenage years.
- Bulimia Nervosa - Another serious eating disorder, where individuals go through periods of consuming a large amount of food in a short space of time, before seeking to purge themselves of the calories they have just ingested - typically by making themselves sick, or excessively exercising, or both. Bulimics may abuse laxative and diuretic medicines in their efforts to control their weight, and repeated vomiting can lead to cardiovascular disease.
- Binge eating disorder - This condition is causes food cravings, where the individual will regularly consume a large amount of food in a short period of time. These binges are often planned out in advance, and carried out in secret.
It is incumbent upon everyone to be on the lookout of signs of mental health problems in one another, while also being attentive to our own mental health. Teachers and parents can learn to recognise any signs of developing mental health problems, and by intervening at an early stage impede the advance of an illness before it becomes more entrenched and harder to treat. Our culture is rapidly changing, and the stigma around mental health is thankfully being lifted. People are more willing to talk about their problems, and past attitudes to this health problem are thankfully dissipating. There is still much work to be done however, and we should all strive to be attentive to the mental health of our friends and colleagues.