I’ve written on this topic before, and some of the comments I received earlier in the year argued that perhaps we shouldn’t burden’ children with ‘adult’ problems as they already grow up too quickly these days. They kind of have a point, but it needn’t be burdensome to learn about mental health. Additionally, it isn’t an ‘adult’ problem – my first major panic attack was during my mid teens, and looking back, I’m not convinced that actually was the first. There’s a reason why we have charities like Young Minds, an organisation set up to support children and young people experiencing mental health problems, and that reason is that there is a prevalence among children and young people. Keeping quiet about something isn’t going to protect people from experiencing mental illness – in fact, it’s likely to make things much worse. You can find this information on several other mental health sites, which corroborates our argument about how important mental health education is. Adam Shaw, founder of the Shaw Mind Foundation, first experienced symptoms of mental illness, specifically OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) when he was just five-years-old.
He said: ‘My first really debilitating memory stems from my earliest days in school. My mum dropped me off every morning, and just to make sure she wouldn’t be knocked down and killed on the way home, I began to do little ‘rituals’. ‘I would try to get my friends to look up at the clouds and see the shapes I was seeing, and if I managed to make them see, then that would mean my mum wouldn’t die. ‘It grew worse and worse from there and I had no idea what was happening to me. I felt 100 per cent responsible for making sure mum didn’t die. That is a terrible burden for a young boy. ‘The older I became, the more anguish my mind caused me. I developed more obsessive and compulsive thoughts and behaviours. It made me miserable and ended up pushing me into the darkest pit of despair. ‘Back then, people thought my strange behaviour was just a bit childish. And because I had no clue of what the real problem was – and neither did anyone around me – it was left to fester and grow and take its hold on me. I experienced many more tormented years before I realised that what I was experiencing was a mental illness. A soul-destroying, energy sapping illness.’ So it’s probably more burdensome for many children if we don’t talk about it. As Adam’s experience shows, his illness was left to snowball and he had no understanding, professional support or coping mechanisms to stop it from becoming all-consuming because he didn’t know what to say about it.
we understand that there is good reason behind mental health education in earlier years, but given people’s concerns about ‘burdening’ children, how should we actually talk to them about it? Surely we’re not going to arm all school children with their own hard copy of the diagnostic statistical manual, ask them to practice self care and learn about the dangers of self-medication? Well, no. Not quite. That would be a bit silly. But surely if discussions took place from an early age, using basic language and explanations, it wouldn’t be so mysterious to children. In fact, having some early conversations might enable the next generation to naturally place mental and physical illness on a par. According to Adam: ‘If I’d have been educated about mental health as a young boy, I’d have had the knowledge to understand that I was poorly. Really poorly. Instead, I just felt like a nuisance and I was punished for my ‘naughty’ behaviour. ‘I didn’t have the vocabulary or the confidence to tell my parents what was really happening, and my parents didn’t have the right knowledge to recognise that I was suffering. If we’d have had mental health education in school, I would have known that I wasn’t a freak, that it was OK to talk about how I was feeling, and that I was able to reach out to others.