I read recently that the Duchess of Cambridge was visiting a series of schools to mark Children’s Mental Health Week. The duchess is the royal patron of Place2Be, a children’s mental health charity. The article said that this year’s theme for Mental Health Week would be “Healthy: Inside and Out, focusing on the connection between physical and mental health.”
The article explained, “The charity works with more than 280 primary and secondary schools across England, Scotland and Wales, providing support and expert training to improve the emotional wellbeing of pupils, families, teachers and school staff.”
The duchess, it says, would be meeting with members of the school community to discuss students’ school readiness, teacher welfare, the wellbeing of the school community, and the importance of being active; and also talk with parents about good routines and habits around sleep, screen time, healthy eating, and exercise.
All of which sounds fine and worthy. But does anyone else see something missing from this public relations tour? Maybe it’s just me, but there doesn’t seem to be much actual emphasis on children’s mental health.
Yes, we know that the body and the mind are intimately connected. Yes, we know that children need a sense of wellbeing. Yes, we know that being active and eating healthy are important for kids. And we know that parents, teachers, and school communities have important roles to play in students’ healthy development. We also know that sleep, healthy eating, and exercise are good for people with mental illnesses. Hell, they’re good for everyone.
But there’s a lot more to mental health than physical fitness and a sense of wellbeing. If that was all it took, we could just eat kale and kiwis, meditate, and send the therapists home.
Of course, the article was short and seemed to focus on the duchess’s meetings with the youngest kids, who after all the most photogenic. Maybe the charity and the duchess also educate about the thornier aspects of mental health. Maybe they promote dialogue about self-harm, suicide prevention, childhood depression, and other conditions. I would like to think that they do.
But the article and many others like it focus on the physical and feel-good aspects of mental health and not the mental and emotional. Bubble baths for self-care! Pets as the best therapists! Super foods for regulating moods!
Memes are not the answer. And the physical aspects of mental health are certainly important. But we’re talking about mental illness and mood disorders here. Can’t we at least spend time talking about the mind and the emotions? Maybe even have a dialogue about what happens when something goes wrong with them? Stress the importance of seeking help when one is confused, overwhelmed, and despairing?
I think society at large is still uncomfortable talking about mental illness and twice as uncomfortable talking about mental illness in children. Many of us are still laboring under the illusion that childhood is a uniformly happy time. In fact, many kids suffer from serious mental illnesses. If the statistics give any indication, 20% to 25% of them will experience a mental health problem at some time in their lives.
We should talk about this and ultimately do something about it. Something more than emphasizing good physical health and getting celebrities to do 30-second spots about how they too experience depression, though these are indeed good things.
I’ve written before about what I think a mental health curriculum in schools should look like (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Jw, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Hl). I suppose that first we need to be aware that children can and do have mental health problems – that it may not be “just a phase they’re going through” or something they’ll “just get over.” It’s a serious problem and requires serious attention, not to mention serious actions.
Whatever else we do, let’s put the mental back into mental health.