The key thing we all need to grasp about mental health: it’s not binary.
When it comes to the public discourse about mental health problems, we have come a long way in quite a short time. As recently as a decade ago, it would have taken considerable bravery on the part of a headteacher to admit that some of their pupils faced mental health problems. Now, any of us would freely admit, without provoking any particular surprise, that at any given time we will have pupils in our school who are facing mental health challenges. But, there is still much that we can do, as parents and as teachers to keep pushing things along in a positive direction.
When it comes to mental health in schools, just as in the whole of society, there is one basic fact which we all need to grasp and to ensure that our young people understand as well, which is that mental health is no more binary than physical health. The world is not divided neatly into the mentally well and the mentally ill.
We would never take this attitude towards physical health. If someone asked you, “are you perfectly fit or are you ill?” you would, rightly, think they had rather missed the point. Most of us are neither ill nor perfectly physically fit. Of course, if we do not look after our bodies reasonably well there comes a time when we do get seriously ill, but most of us spend most of our lives somewhere in the middle of the vast and complex spectrum which ranges from ‘ill’ to ‘perfectly fit.’
Mental health operates in much the same, yet there is still an inbuilt tendency in our culture to ignore this obvious truth, and this is what gives rise to the stigma (which has thankfully lessened considerably in recent years, but still remains to an extent) surrounding mental health. By seeing mental health in binary terms of ‘normal’ and ‘mentally ill’ we make anyone who either experiences poor mental health, or has to live with someone who does, experience a burden of guilt and worry that they need not and should not be feeling.
Perhaps the best example to select to illustrate the point is anxiety disorder. For whatever reason (and the reasons are probably many and complex) anxiety disorder would appear to be one of the most commonly occurring and swiftly increasing forms of mental ill-health among the current generation of teenagers. Of course, lots of adults suffer from it as well, and lots of people (regardless of age) probably spend years skirting its edges in a state of mild unhappiness without even realising that they have a health problem. Succumbing to anxiety disorder is like succumbing to diabetes or a bad back, it’s the result of a straightforward combination of not looking after yourself as well as you probably should (which is infinitely forgivable) and some bad luck. Yet, there is still the tendency to instinctively view the person who admits to having anxiety disorder (or bulimia, or anorexia, or depression) as a certain type – that is, as being ‘the anxious type’ (as if, deep down, anyone wasn’t ‘the anxious type’). This is the instinctive response and, like many instinctive responses, it is both untrue and unkind. We don’t think the same way about diabetes or cancer. People who contract these diseases may well have played some part in their own fate, but we don’t view them as ‘the cancer type’ or ‘the diabetes type.’
The sooner that we come to view mental health as a spectrum and accept that all of us are, to one degree or another, mentally unhealthy in some areas of our lives, the better placed we will be to provide practical support to those who, for whatever reasons, have the misfortune to experience a genuinely disabling mental illness.