This is the second of two articles about mental health. The first one was about Chronic stress in teachers; this one’s about mental health in high school students. As a quick recap before we get started, I said in the first article that I would be straight up honest in both; I was there and I will be here.
Giving children targets is a ludicrous idea. If they hit them, great but if they fail to do so, they often don’t have the emotional maturity to react in any other way than with shame. Shame is the major driver in all mental health issues. Do you see the problem here?
I also said that I would be controversial, and that’s a distinct possibility here too. Oh, and I’m going to swear a bit too. And quote some musicians.
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Student Mental Health.
Student mental health is a really big deal. So much so that here in the UK, The British Psychological Society voted at their Senate for mental health and psychological well-being of children and young people to be their top policy priority for 2019.
If you’re not familiar, the BPS is a registered charity which acts as the representative body for psychology and psychologists in the UK, and is responsible for the promotion of excellence and ethical practice in science, education, and application of psychology as a discipline. The equivalent in the US is the American Psychological Association (APA).
In real terms, what that means is that the Policy team at the BPS will be taking the campaign forward and developing the idea of a “kitemark” for psychologically healthy educational institutions and will be setting up a Policy Development Group to help drive the work forward. There is a link to the kitemark policy at the bottom of this article.
This is a big deal, folks; a very big deal indeed. The BPS has huge clout in the UK and when they speak, people listen.
Well, they will now, because they’ll have no choice.
Does School Cause Mental Illness?
As I see it, student mental health is another of the elephants in the room that those in power in education have been trying to ignore for quite some time now. If you read my last article, you’ll know that I’m not one for quoting stats so I won’t be doing that here either. As with the last article, this one will outline the issue and then look at what can be done about it: I’m nothing if not pragmatic.
I’m going to proceed on the basis that you already know that students today have it tough, and their mental health is suffering dramatically.
They’re up against an education system that demands that they reach “Targets”: Target grades; Targets for attendance; Targets for punctuality; entry grades for university; SMART targets for progress etc, etc. Because kids love Targets, don’t they?
Ask any young person what their favourite thing in the world is and they’ll tell you it’s Targets. They simply can’t get enough of the things. Oh, wait. No, that’s not true
I said in my previous article: “Don’t let School Funding Challenges in the Teaching Profession Make You Quit” that those in power are trying to run education like a business, and it really isn’t.
There, I commented on the futility of trying to get teachers to act like salespeople because they’re not, and how students are considered to somehow be customers, which they’re not. But I actually think it’s even more bizarre than that.
Even if we accept the preposterous notion that teachers are salespeople and students are customers, could someone please tell me in what business on the planet customers are given Targets? Someone? Anyone? What the actual F*** are we doing? No-one in business gives their customers Targets!
That would be professional suicide: “Oh, I’m sorry Mr or Mrs Customer; you haven’t reached your performance Target so we’ll have to take action to make sure you can continue to consume our product” In what universe is that an actual sentence that people say outside of satirical articles?
By its own logic, any model in which students have Targets renders them not the customer, but a part of the business. So, if the student is not the customer; and they can’t be because they themselves have Targets, I’m going to have to proceed along logical lines and follow the argument of those in power: that education is a business, and that there is a customer.
But here and now I’m going to tell you that customer is not the student. They can’t be, because the moment you gave them Targets they became part of the business.
So who is the actual customer? Well, customers are easy to spot because they’re the one paying for the service or product, right? In the case of state education: that’s Government. And what are they buying with the money they spend?
Well, it would appear that the service is high quality teaching and learning and the product is exam results. I can’t see anything else, can you? Targets must be there to track progress and inform the customer what they’re getting for their money.
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So we have our customer; we have our business; we have our services and products in the form of teaching and learning and results. And we have our measurable progress in the form of Targets and Grades. Yay! A business model!
There’s only one thing slightly wrong with this picture: an enormous number of the people involved in the business are children, and last time I looked children weren’t all that business-savvy.
I’m not blaming children for not understanding the model they’re working in, far from it. It’s not their fault the education system is a business they don’t understand, is it? It’s not their fault they don’t see the bigger picture, is it? It’s not their fault that no-one’s sat them down and explained the whole thing, is it?
We can’t go about the place pointing the finger at the student for not hitting Targets they don’t see the relevance of can we? Teachers get it. Managers get it. Senior leaders get it and Government surely do get it. Students don’t, and that’s not their fault. All they know is that they have Targets and that’s that.
Or is it? Because I don’t think it is, and neither do the majority of the mental health community.
To build the picture of what I believe is really going on in student mental health as it relates to Targets, we need to start at the idea of the development of the difference between Guilt and Shame.
There’s a ton of research in Psychology on Moral Development, Emotional Development, the Development of Self and Identity and the like. Stacks of it; go look.
Early Childhood Brain Development Facts
All of it points to the same thing: children develop an understanding of the difference between doing and being; it is not innate. In other words, children learn that what they do and who they are is two completely different things.
The distinction they learn as they develop is this:
Guilt refers to the emotional state of feeling that we have done something wrong.
Shame refers to the emotional state of feeling that we are something wrong.
At the heart of what I do as an abuse recovery practitioner is to help people understand that distinction because abusers delight in turning guilt into shame.
Every single person I have worked with who
In essence, what they do is take an action on the part of the Target and try to use it to define them. In other words, they take what their Target does and try to make it who they are. Abusers see the world in Black and White, All or Nothing and that’s how they try to convince their Target to see themselves. It’s insidious, it’s pernicious and it’s devastating.
And you know who is primed for that kind of thinking? Children: because the understanding of that distinction is developmental; not innate.
Put children in the hands of an adult who is an emotionally under-developed Black and White thinker and they will not develop the understanding of the difference between Guilt and Shame because the adult in question simply can’t teach them because they don’t know it themselves, and in most cases of that nature doesn’t want to even if they could.
So what’s that got to do with Targets?
Effects of Academic Pressure on Students.
Well, look: if you’ve got an individual who is still learning the distinction between what they do and who they are and you give them something to do that has a measurable outcome, one of two things will happen.
They’ll either do it, or they won’t: Succeed or Fail.
If they do know the distinction between Guilt and Shame, in either
Now try that with someone who doesn’t know the distinction between Guilt and Shame. If they succeed, they may feel pride at the achievement; if they fail, there’s every chance they’ll feel
Feelings of Shame are the number 1 reason for the majority of mental health issues in society today.
They account for depression, anxiety, addiction and a whole lot more. No-one is immune and we all experience it to varying degrees. We all feel inadequate sometimes, right? We all feel like a bit of a fraud sometimes, right? We all have those times when we just want someone to tell us we’re great because we don’t believe it at that point in time, right?
That’s Shame, and it’s perfectly natural and OK. We all experience it and life is basically us finding a way to love ourselves.
What isn’t OK is to induce those feelings in people; it’s not OK to poke at someone’s Shame and hurt them with it and I don’t care if you’re doing it deliberately or by omission, if you’re poking someone’s Shame or allowing it to happen: you and me? We’ve got a problem.
As a slight aside, I spent 15 years working in the corporate world before I went into teaching. I even had the privilege of working alongside the lovely TeacherOfSci himself. Good days. (We used to run several stores for a major telecommunications company).
Anyway, in that environment Targets were everywhere; you couldn’t move for the damn things. And that was a good thing because they drove outcomes, people got bonuses and promotions based on them, they could be used to help people develop their skills, share best practice, all that good stuff.
In the main, people understood Targets for what they were: they were a thing but not a defining quality. Because the people involved with them were adults.
For the most part, people understood that they were not defined by their success or failure, those were things they did, not who they were; because they had developed into adulthood and knew the difference between Guilt and Shame.
I’m not saying there weren’t exceptions; of
But we’re talking about children here, people! Children!
Assuming good enough parenting and a supportive learning environment, children will develop an understanding of the distinction between Guilt and Shame, and if you want to introduce Targets into that, be my guest.
But what if they don’t?
- What if, for instance, their parents are not emotionally mature enough to support that part of their development?
- What if their teachers are so overwhelmed they don’t have the time to invest in supporting that part of their development?
- What if the education system is so catastrophically underfunded there is no school
counsellor,or counselling team?
- What if cuts to education budgets have led to the downsizing of student mental health support departments?
- What if the mental health institutions that students are referred to are so underfunded that the waiting list for a counsellor is six months long? What then?
Well, all that is real. It is happening, and it’s happening right now.
In both the UK and the US, cuts to education budgets have seen ever decreasing numbers of support staff for students mental health and an
And that is entirely why the BPS has gotten involved. They see it, we see it, and the kids see it. The only people who don’t see it are the ones with a vested interest in not seeing it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you benefit from the suffering of others, you’re an abuser and I welcome anyone to challenge me on that.
What the BPS is doing is developing the idea of a “kitemark” for psychologically healthy educational institutions and will be setting up a Policy Development Group to help drive the work forward.
In real terms that means that education institutions, here in the UK at least, will finally be held accountable for the extent to which they recognise the issue and actually do something about it. Little is known about the mechanics of it yet, but I trust that one outcome will be that institutions will no longer be allowed to make cuts to mental health services for students and will be required to actively invest in them.
“Kitemark” is a very cunning word. Being awarded it means you’re doing your job; not being awarded it means you’re not.
The general public here in the UK know exactly what the Ofsted (The UK Government department that assesses schools) school ratings mean: “Outstanding; Good; Requires Improvement; Inadequate”. They know, and they take a very dim view of schools and colleges that aren’t “Good or Outstanding”.
Once the general public
So where do we go with all this?
Well, as always, I propose we change the narrative. People believe what they think, and if we change what people think, and thereby what they believe, we change the narrative.
We can no longer support the narrative that it’s OK to give Targets to children and expect them to handle them as an adult would: They won’t. They will handle them as children do: some will be fine, others really won’t be fine.
If you’ve got a child on your hands who is perceiving their failure to hit a Target as a comment on who they are; if they feel like a bad person, you’ve got someone experiencing Shame, and Shame is what lies at the heart of the current mental health crisis because Shame lies at the heart of almost all mental health problems.
But there is enormous hope here, people.
Yes, student mental health is an issue and yes, Shame has a lot to do with that. But here’s the thing: The antidote to Shame is Care. The advice for people dealing with Shame is always Self-Care because that’s a demonstration to yourself that you Care about you. And we can do that for others too.
All that’s really needed for people, including students, who are dealing with Shame is some Care.
Teachers are in a unique position to do that because they see their students every day. I already know that you care for your students, otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.
You’re doing a great job. When you show your students that you care about them, you are already doing excellent work in helping them develop an understanding of the distinction I talked about earlier.
When you show them that what they do and who they are is different, you are teaching them that distinction. When you give them unconditional care and treat them as unique, special individuals who deserve that care without question, you are doing everything that’s needed.
You’re doing that every day and it’s probably unconscious.
Students always remember the teachers who cared because that’s what really makes a difference in this life.
There’s a quote attributed to Carl W. Buehner: “They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” That was, is, and will always be true. Yes, our students are having a tough time right now, but you are making more of a difference than you could possibly know and you’re doing it just by being you!
When you care, they learn to care for themselves and that makes all the difference in the world. Give yourself some love, folks, and give each other some love too because you are doing something so phenomenal that we need new words to describe it: you are demonstrating to your students every single day that they are cared for and how they can care for themselves. That’s priceless!
In the words of Bob Dylan: the times they are a-changin’. The BPS is getting behind us now, and that is a major win for young people and anyone who cares for them. While we’re waiting for the cavalry to arrive, keep caring because it works better than you could possibly imagine.
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