BBC Sunday Morning Live: Do we need mental health education?
Updated: Oct 18, 2018
Before reading this, I would advise you to watch the mental health discussion on the Sunday Morning Live show. The discussion panel consisted of mental health ambassador, Alistair Campbell, founder and CEO of mental health charity ‘Inside Out’ , Vanessa Boachie, co-author of ‘the dangerous rise of therapeutic education’, Dennis Hayes, and journalist, Angela Epstein. Boachie and Campbell argued that we need psychological education in schools while Hayes and Epstein believed that by giving children an understanding of psychological labels, this increases the likelihood that they will develop the symptoms of these labels. We chose to deconstruct the statements rather than target the people so while quotes are used, we avoid mentioning names.
In order to practice what we preach in relation to expressing our emotions, we want to say that we were both surprised and angry that there were no mental health professionals present on the panel. As academics, something that we really want to emphasise is that everyone is entitled to an opinion, but an opinion is more valid when it is backed up with research. Research involves a step by step presentation of how one thing has an effect over another thing, regardless of the situation or how many times you carry out the presentation. This is scientific evidence. If you see something happen once, it does not mean it will happen everytime because it might have happened because of chance or because of something else that one time. This is the difference between research and an anecdote. Research is why we know that vaccines do not cause learning disabilities, why the earth is not flat, and why the moon is not made of cheese.
The discussion began with the argument that we are telling children they are vulnerable by giving them made up labels:
“First there was self-esteem, then emotional literacy, then well-being”.
In fact, self-esteem has helped us measure how people are feeling, which allows us to detect if someone is at risk of becoming mentally ill. Self-esteem prevents us from ignoring the mentally ill. By defining self-esteem, Greenberg and colleagues (1992) have learned ways to focus on increasing self-esteem and this acts as a buffer against mental disorders such as anxiety. Emotional literacy has been hugely beneficial to ensuring that autistic people can learn what they have a deficit in. By Simon Baron-Cohen (1992) identifying that autistic children have difficulties in reading emotions, interventions have targeted training emotional literacy and this has allowed the autistic population to have meaningful relationships.
And finally, the meaning of well-being includes being active through exercise, healthy eating, and staying connected with friends. Would we argue that these are also making children vulnerable? Of course not. Why? Because research has shown that healthy eating and exercise makes us feel positive long-term (New Economics Foundation, 2010).
“Kids are being told that they can’t cope, they are told that they have emotional problems, and they are told they cannot get out of it and they turn in on themselves”.
In our workshop, we do not once mention that children cannot cope in everyday life. Instead, we are making them aware of what they can do in difficult life situations. We explain that we cannot stop an emotion happening but we can use skills to control how long they last. Hence, we do the complete opposite of telling them that they cannot get out of it. We tell them that they can.
“we are classifying everyday anxieties and vulnerabilities”and “we belittle real problems that real people have”.
We need to be made aware that there is a difference between mental illness and mental health. Most people see a continuum, where mental illness is on one end and mental health is on the other. Mental health and mental illness are not on the same continuum (Samaritans, 2017). Not everybody is mentally ill but everyone has mental health. Therefore, not everyone needs mental illness education but everyone needs mental health education.
Emotional intelligence explains that there is a difference between worry and anxiety, whereby worry is a short term emotion, whereas anxiety is when worry continues and develops into a dysfunctional mood. By educating kids about this, it gives them the ability to understand that their worry is short term, non-problematic and actually beneficial. For example, worry makes us more prepared for the future.
“Mental illness stems from the repression of emotions”
It is when we ignore and suppress this worry that problems start and this is how anxiety develops. How do we know this? Because Jung Huh and colleagues (2014) found that repression increased the likelihood that children who experienced difficult life events would develop more severe depression and anxiety in adulthood.
Ironically, another negative emotion regulation strategy was found in this discussion. If we assume that emotional education will lead to children only taking the negatives, we are choosing to predict a negative outcome from a neutral stimulus. If this was the case, sexual health talks would result in teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. How do we know that this does not happen? Because the world health organisation (2015) ran a study, which found that sexual health education (and mental health education, for that matter) was effective in promoting health and educational attainmnet in school.
We need to identify our emotions because if we misidentify, we use the wrong emotion regulation strategies and this won’t stop the emotion from continuing (Goleman, 1995). For example, if we think we are angry when we are actually sad, breaking things to relieve our ‘anger’ causes us to be sadder for longer. It’s like trying to eat soup with a fork.
“When teachers do detect the problem, they can’t get help because CAMHS are under pressure”.
We 100% agree with this. The NHS are under pressure because we believe that children need to be labelled in order to get help. Emotional education will help this problem because it will teach some children how to deal with their problems independently without the need of labels or professional help. How do we know this? Because Mikolajczak, Petrides & Hurry (2009) found that emotional intelligence acts as a protective factor against self-harm.
“They need to get on with being taught at schools”.
The term ‘get on with it’ is something that has circulated around homosexuality, sexual abuse and racism. Of course, the context is different but we should always question that term. Ignoring emotional education is rejecting it, and this rejection is what creates the negative stigma around mental health. We should never reject something because we do not understand it. This cultivates a negative society. If people were to forever keep quiet and “Get on with it”, then society would never advance.
“The more you talk about your problems, the worse they get”.
We brought this one up because it amused us. Freud is rolling around in his grave, scientests are cringing, and psychologists are disgusted. This sentence single handely disregards the entire field of psychology.
Education on emotions is not something that should be entitled to some people. We all have emotions. As the young boy said, it is what makes us human. If we did not have emotions, we would be robots. Therefore, we need to understand our emotions just as much as we need to understand other aspects of our bodies. My advice to anyone who thinks that emotional education is detrimental is to look at the research behind the education. Low emotional intelligence is a common trend in children with mental illness and poor mental health (Davis & Humphrey, 2012).On the other hand, high emotional intelligence does not only mean better mental health. It has been found to be a better predictor than any other factor, inclusding IQ, for being liked by peers (Austin, Saklofske & Egan, 2004), for making good decisions (Fernandez-Berrocal, Extremera, Lopes, Ruiz-Aranda, 2004, for academic performance (Mavroveli & Sanchez-Ruiz, 2011) and for many many more important life skills. So why would we not teach it?
“If we invest in the well being of children, we end up saving money in the long term”. Where Motus come in...
We would also like to state that this does not mean we are in favor of all emotional education. Why not? Because research tells us that some of it does not work. For example, SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) has been found to be non-effective long-term (Humphrey, Lendrum & Wigelsworth, 2010). We are only in favor of research.
We want to reiterate that everything in our workshop is backed up by research. We also do not use any labels, we do not mention any psychological disorders, and we do not ‘create’ vulnerabilities. We simply explain what emotions are and this allows children to understand their minds better. Motus Learning gives children a language to express their feelings and this creates an environment where no stigma around mental health exists. This language, alongside this safe place, is what will help teachers detect if something is not right. Henceforth, we aid the identification of mental health problems and mental illness’ early. Motus Learning then takes one step further and gives the children resilience strategies that they can use to deal with difficult situations, as opposed to telling them they cannot cope.
This reduces the amount of labelling, it takes pressure off the NHS, and most importantly, it teaches kids essential life skills.
The show finished on the anecdotal evidence that understanding emotions has helped people. The response was “that’s an adult view”. Mozart was educated on how to compose at the age of 3. He wrote Minuet and Trio in G minor at the age of 5. Stevie Wonder was told that learning to play music while blind was a waste of time. He began recording music at the age of 12. And finally, Malala Yousafzai was told that she cannot have an education. She went on to become the youngest ever person to win a Nobel prize. We need to stop assuming that children can’t deal with certain types of education. They gain the ability to think abstractly at the age of 11. One guest argued that making children understand emotions is abuse. Protection against education is not protection. It is abuse. Kids have emotions just like everyone else and education about these emotions is not an entitlement to adults. Every child has a right to be happy.
Yours Sincerely, Motus.