There has, quite rightly, been a lot of focus on mental health in schools, with some fantastic guidance and resources now freely available to support teachers in dealing with many of the mental health components. But society still has a long way to go, and it is still perceived that males are not good at expressing their feelings. To a point, it’s true – with many males being reared on an appetite on messages such as ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘man up’, which quickly suppress strong emotional reactions to various real situations.
The statistics are strikingly scary: According to the Office of National Statistics, suicide remains the leading cause of death in England and Wales for men aged 20 to 34, accounting for 24% of all deaths in 2013. One of the most significant factors is the perceived reluctance for individuals to seek help.
When we think about the pupils under our charge in schools, they will soon fall into that age category, so spotting signs, discussing issues, and offering signposts for help is critical for boys and girls as they mature.
Childline figures from 2012 – 2013 suggest 278,886 calls to their hotline were made by young people regarding mental health issues, with 5,208 made by boys about image issues.
So What’s Going on?
The number of teenage boys suffering from mental health problems is on the rise, with more boys suffering from anorexia. Mental health issues have mainly been swept under the carpet for years now, and with families becoming more fragmented, the usual communities of support are no longer easily available for individuals to access. In general, girls are perceived to be more adept at discussing and showing their feelings, whereas the messages are given to boys often lead to bottling up anger and emotions which can have a negative impact. This can expose its ugly head in various negative behaviours, which can be startling to the individual and to those close by, such as violence, a regression in behaviour, eating disorders, anxiety, depression and isolation.
Winston Churchill famously talked of his ‘black dog’ at his darkest times, and this strong metaphor is strongly demonstrated in this World Health Organisation and Mind Video.
What can schools do?
With a packed curriculum, it can be difficult to find time to explore this emotionally challenging aspect of our lives, but schools are perfectly placed to open up the conversation and support pupils evolve their emotional intelligence. This is not exclusive to boys or girls, and recognising that staff colleagues may also be facing mental health challenges is also important, so this is not an exhaustive article, but intended to spark awareness or discussion which can lead to a positive outcome for all:
• Look out for the signs
There is no definitive list for recognising the signs, and many people are good at wearing a mask to hide their true feelings. Schools are good places for students as they offer some sense of normality, whereas, for others, there may be an aspect to school that really upsets them.
• Allow space and time to talk
We’re not trained therapists, counsellors or psychiatrists, but teachers are in a blessed position of trust, so you need to be sure that you can spare the time and safe environment if students want to talk. You may be the only person they can open up to. Remain professional, and be sure of where you can go to seek support and guidance if needed. The stigma of mental health issues is breaking down, but there still is some way to go.
• Recognise the importance of team pursuits.
Any social activity, whether sporting or non-sporting, are critical for developing connections and friendships. Not all pupils like sports, so encourage opportunities for activities that suit each kind of person – even if it is collaborative video game experiences. Anything that encourages talking and connecting is good.
• Simple Interventions
It’s usually the little things that make the biggest differences. A kindly word at the right time, treating the individual as a valued person, or a positive look of encouragement may be all people need. You are in that position to make a difference to the individual, so ensure that you are a positive influence in their life. Encourage the use of a mood journal; ensure outdoor exercise is regular and constructive.
• Signposting – Recognise services
MIND – Fantastic resources at mind.org.uk and read the report on mental health for males at bit.ly/uked15nov15. Childline – 0800 1111
The black dog metaphor is strong, and if you recognise that a student or colleague has got themselves a (metaphoric) puppy, then attention is needed. This is a complex area, and this article hopes to prompt discussion and get teachers and leaders thinking about what their school does for boys (and girls) under their care. We all have busy lives, filled with targets and marking and stuff, but at the end of the day, it is the quality of individual lives that actually matters.