PSHE Education: Is it time schools made mental health awareness a compulsory part of the curriculum?

At university mental health awareness is paramount. Last year, the annual Student Experience survey revealed that ‘87% of first year students find it difficult to cope with social or academic aspects of university life’, and other results showed a significant majority were struggling to cope with issues such as isolation, the work-study balance, financial difficulties and living independently. So, it is no secret that students in higher education are particularly vulnerable to these issues, and that’s why the services available to us; and ongoing events, such as the annual Mental Health Awareness week, are in place to try and tackle the problem. Because of this, most students feel like they know where they can go to get help when they need it. This has made the typically taboo topic, thankfully, more freely discussed on campus.

However, I begin to question whether these measures wouldn’t be entirely necessary if these conversations surrounding mental health had begun at a younger age. When I cast my mind back to school and think about how much emphasis was placed on mental health issues, it wasn’t really part of the curriculum. More often than not, it was taught by your less-than-approachable PE teacher, and usually just got thrown in with every topic that was considered ‘non-academic’: collectively known as PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) education.

Perhaps naively, I trusted in the powers that be, to notice this correlation and adapt the curriculum to be better equipped at tackling these issues earlier on. Yet, during a recent conversation with my fourteen-year-old sister about her PSHE lesson, I was sadly disappointed. She talked of the unqualified and awkward maths teacher, the classic banana-condom ritual, and how little she gained from the whole charade. Worryingly, she even told me was that there was no mention of mental health and, much like when we were at school all their efforts, seem to have been spent on sexual health awareness. Whilst in no way am I undermining the importance of sex education, when sexual health is superseding other important issues, like mental health, it’s time the Government rethought its approach to PSHE education.

But before I jumped to any conclusions based on the word of a teenager, I wanted to see if what she was telling me was really true, so I spoke to a friend who is actually employed to go to secondary schools and give these lessons. Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed when she told me that this curriculum has stayed very much stagnant since most students at university now were teenagers: the main programme focuses entirely on sexual health and includes nothing on mental well-being.

In fact, she said that the curriculum hasn’t changed at all: it is still hetero-centred and includes nothing on consent, pornography or the LGBT community. It seems the Mean Girls’ Coach Carr attitude is still very much a reality.

Even worse still, to this day the outdated PSHE curriculum isn’t even statutory in schools. Nevertheless, some schools and organisations are taking matters into their own hands, with schools employing a whole team of mental health practitioners to address the issue, and many taking on the MISP (Mindfulness in Schools Project) in an attempt to tackle mental health.

It frightens me that the education department still believes that these issues can easily be rolled into one lesson, proven in the PSHE education’s shockingly vague and all-encompassing description of the subject on their website:

“A school subject through which pupils develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they need to keep themselves healthy and safe, and prepare for life and work in modern Britain.”

Whilst this description suggests PSHE education covers every base of non-academic life, in practice it only seems interested in teaching sexual health education. Perhaps, if we addressed mental health issues in the same rigorous way we address sexual health at secondary schools, the extensive services Universities are compelled to offer wouldn’t be as necessary.

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