by Kristina Murkett
Thursday, 1
September 2022
Debate
13:37

Schools are too obsessed with mental health

Provisions like emotional check-ins and take-a-break corners won't help students
by Kristina Murkett
Therapy dogs won’t make much difference

As American schools return for the new academic year, one priority has risen above them all: visibly addressing students’ mental health. In Kentucky, some elementary schools now start their days with “emotional check-ins”, where students use an app called Closegap to answer questions on how they are feeling. Forty schools in Houston now have relaxation rooms, known as “Thinkeries”, with bean-bag chairs, warmly-coloured walls and slogans such as “Choose Kind”. Other schools have “take-a-break” corners with “self-regulation kits”: stress balls, acupuncture rings, books with tips on deep breathing. A school in Pennsylvania has therapy dogs, emergency counsellors and is planning to give mental health training to all tenth graders (15-16 year olds).

This obsession with mental health provision is also reflected in UK schools. In 2018, 39% of schools had a mental health policy in place; that figure is now 63%. It is now compulsory for schools to teach pupils about mental health and wellbeing as part of health and relationships education, and the government has allocated £9.5 million in training for almost 8000 schools to have a mental health lead.

The aims behind many of these policies and provisions are noble. A hungry child can’t learn, and neither can an emotionally troubled one. It is important that we teach students to recognise and regulate their emotions, but that doesn’t mean they need to constantly ruminate on them. I worry that a lot of discussions around mental health simply become a form of navel-gazing, and by asking students to constantly reflect on how they are feeling we are encouraging them to dwell on problems, negative thoughts or difficult emotions without giving them the tools to manage or cope with them. 

Worse, we might actually be creating problems. If you ask a student over and over again if they are okay, they may eventually come to the conclusion that they are not supposed to be okay, and if they aren’t okay, then there must be something wrong with them. Labelling can sometimes backfire; for example, for anyone who actually suffers from an anxiety disorder, asking them to constantly check-in on their thoughts and feelings may just exacerbate their anxiety, because they then over-interpret and over-value their worries. It’s like asking a hypochondriac to keep a symptoms diary: of course they would convince themselves that there’s a pattern and they are ill. It would be far better to convince them that feelings aren’t facts.

Schools are under so much pressure to do something to tackle the mental health crisis, but that doesn’t mean they should just do anything. For example, asking students to log their emotions on an app is arguably a futile tick-box exercise that simply increases students’ screen time (which is notoriously detrimental to mental health) while allowing a company to mine the data. Although it may be useful in flagging under-the-radar students who are struggling, the sad reality is that teachers do not have the time, expertise, resources or qualifications to help the students who are really struggling the most. 

Much has been written already about how schools are filling the gaps left by retracting families, and mental health is an obvious place where pedagogy seems to be increasingly taking over from parenting. Yet we must acknowledge that although playing mindful whale music on YouTube or having a cockapoo as part of your crisis team might help some students to relax, more is not necessarily better.

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Matt M
Matt M
26 days ago

It isn’t just schools, it’s everywhere.
I rarely watch TV but last night I was at my mother-in-laws and she was watching some programme about fixing up bits of junk that contestants bring in. Every two minutes there was a tale-of-woe complete with contestants and presenters in tears! It was like a half-hour nervous breakdown!
Later I watched an episode of Gideon’s Way (1966) on Talking Pictures TV. In one scene a character excused himself from the room when he was informed by the police that his only daughter was dead because he could not master his emotions. He later apologised for losing self control. The policeman accepted the apology.
How we have changed in 60 years!

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
25 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Exactly. Some years ago, my son auditioned for “The Voice”. After getting through the first round and advancing to the next stage, they asked him about his family life. When he said he was lucky to have committed, supportive parents who were there with him, the audition team said thanks anyway. They wanted a sob story not a happy family. Happy doesn’t sell.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
26 days ago

Here’s how to deal with the intrusions of the emotional imperative:-
“Tell us your feelings.”
“No.”

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
26 days ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

I have reported Eva Foster’s spam reply to my comment, and urge everyone else to do likewise.

Last edited 26 days ago by Drahcir Nevarc
Aaron James
Aaron James
26 days ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

No

Aaron James
Aaron James
26 days ago

100% Gaslighting – literally like the movie where the popular word comes from.

The children are being taught they have mental problems, and it is giving them mental problems – but a second thing, it is making them weak.

Edward H
Edward H
26 days ago

They should assign Epictetus.

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
26 days ago

I have a feeling that the more we obsess over these issues, the worse it appears to be. If we assume from the get go that the vast majority of children aren’t living in an abusive household and/or a poverty stricken one where they aren’t getting what they need and are fine, I suspect these issues will mostly go away on their own. Sure, teachers and other school staff should have training on when to recognise these things (and I imagine they do), but they shouldn’t be primed to see it everywhere.

Brett H
Brett H
26 days ago

This seems to me to be just another slow walk towards the state removing children from their parents influence and placing it with the state. The state will have to look after your childrens’ mental health because you can’t, or won’t, do it. In time it might even be the case that the parents are the ones held responsible for the poor mental health of children. Of course this is all based on the state defining mental health.

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
26 days ago

This is intensely neurotic. Not unlike modern feminism. Would be interesting to see how the two could possibly be related…

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
25 days ago
Reply to  Jason Highley

Actually, Jason, there really is a relation not only between feminism and emotionalism (both of which emerged from romanticism) but also between both and safetyism (at school or elsewhere) and other neurotic spinoffs from pop psychology.
Although postmodernists originated the “deconstruction” of objectivity (and much else) and its centrality in sinister “bourgeois discourses,” feminists quickly adopted postmodernism for their own purposes–and wokists, who absorbed feminism, have taken it to ever more radical conclusions. By the 1980s, feminists were arguing that reason itself, was somehow oppressively “patriarchal” and that women and other “subaltern” groups had their own “ways of knowing,” which usually amounted to intuition or feeling. Some feminists claimed that their own “way of knowing” was merely different from that of men: reason, or logic; other feminists claimed, either explicitly or implicitly, that their way was superior to that of men. Either way, the main point was that women could rely on both feeling and thinking (which is how they could demand academic careers and cite social science statistics for political purposes), but that men could rely only on thinking. This led to legal or administrative reforms such as the victim statements in courts of law (and of public opinion), the abandonment of due process in favor of “trauma informed” approaches, the quasi-religious notion of “believe women” and so on.
But this preoccupation with feeling was by no means confined to academic or other elite circles. TV talk shows, for example, have routinely featured pop psychology–that is, painful confessions, victim sagas, emotional confrontations, and tears. And then there was the hysterical episodes, both happy and sad ones, over Princess Diana, the Queen of Hearts.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
25 days ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

None of that rubbish is feminism. Feminism is about female rights (with which come responsibilities) and equal pay for work of equal value. It is not about indulging neurotic housewives.

Bella OConnell
Bella OConnell
25 days ago

Completely agree. ‘That rubbish’ is not feminism. And we still have not won the battle of equal pay for work of equal value in many professions sadly. I suspect that this is unlikely to progress anytime soon now that the spotlight is on the pronoun issue.

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
24 days ago

Oh, it is rubbish. But it came from people who called themselves feminists and claimed to speak for feminists and even for women in general. By denying the historical evidence, you are complicit in what has come from all this rubbish.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
25 days ago

All this is treating the symptoms. The cause is the behaviour of adults. Parents and teachers creating stress over SATs and GCSEs. Adults and one notorious teenager causing stress over “saving the planet” or else “we’re all going to die!”.
Making children wear masks in school when they are virtually immune from the disease. Telling children that they need to step up and be activists because adults have failed to run the country and the world properly.
When the adults in the room start behaving like adults, most of these problems will melt away.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
25 days ago

Higher Education is much the same way. A good example of this is how professors are expected to play along with students’ delusional thinking. The theory goes that if we challenge their ideas we risk hurting them which then inhibits their ability to learn. One wonders how students can learn if they are threatened by the pursuit of objectivity.
The exception to this is the Critical Theory range of social sciences. Professors who teach these have permission to ride rough-shod over students’ sense of comfort.

Lillian Fry
Lillian Fry
25 days ago

Is there a mental health crisis or is it the fertile imagination of those who would be advantaged by it: jobs in the ever-expanding and unaccountable non-academic sphere?, opportunity to manipulate young minds in nefarious ways?
There are people who get off on the prospect. And don’t forget, wrongthink can be defined as mental illness as totalitarian states have done in the past. You can then lock up dissidents.

Dave Evenden
Dave Evenden
20 days ago
Reply to  Lillian Fry

test reply – newbie here

Last edited 20 days ago by Dave Evenden
tom j
tom j
25 days ago

 A hungry child can’t learn, and neither can an emotionally troubled one.”
Even this premise, a concession by the author, is simply untrue.

Carmen Carmen
Carmen Carmen
25 days ago

I’m a recently retired teacher. Emotional distress in schools is real. We are in a crisis. In the last 15 years the behavioral maladaptive issues in students have skyrocketed. The lack of emotional self control plays out on a daily basis. Students don’t seem to be able to regulate their emotions well enough to be able to concentrate on school work. They are more prone to anger, more aggressive. In a way it preceded by just a few years what has become a trend now in the adult world. Any intervention schools are putting into place is the result of real problems, not a “woke” trend. You can agree or disagree about the details but schools are trying to do something, they have to. And by the way, we don’t spend half of the school day asking students how they feel. In my corner of the world there’s a 15 minute check in at the beginning of the day and some days a more direct lesson in the afternoon about what to do when you are angry, frustrated, etc. Usually the counselor will come once a week to teach those lessons. The majority of the day is dedicated to academics, or at least we try very hard to do so.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
25 days ago
Reply to  Carmen Carmen

But is indulging ‘mental health’ self obsession the answer? Doesn’t that just encourage uncontrolled behaviour?
I suspect that many teenagers behave like this because it is how people behave on television programmes (in the broadest sense) that they watch. Wouldn’t it be better to discuss this behaviour and explain why short dramatic films are made that way, along with encouraging reading instead of passive ‘watching’?
Self control and resilience do not develop if emotional outbursts are indulged.

Lillian Fry
Lillian Fry
25 days ago
Reply to  Carmen Carmen

But, those “interventions” mean less time spent on standard disciplines. And there is no accountability in the “social and emotional” sphere. How does anyone know if these efforts even work?

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
24 days ago
Reply to  Carmen Carmen

Reality breaks into a so far iIl-informed and clichéd discussion, thanks!

Last edited 24 days ago by Andrew McDonald
Barry Faith
Barry Faith
24 days ago

Ms Murkett is offering opinion with very little evidence.
My daughter works in schools, with a wide range of children, including those with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs, along with additional behavioural and learning needs; some have severe learning disabilities. She has pointed out to me key reasons why schools deal with mental health needs.
If a child’s mental health is poor they cannot learn effectively.
Some children have suffered adverse childhood experiences such as Covid lockdowns, family breakdown, becoming young carers and simply not being able to have childhood experiences which enable them to develop SEMH skills.
Developing emotional literacy and intelligence is fundamental. An example would be children describing themselves as ‘angry’ because this is a word they know. Most times, when explored, the child isn’t angry but is frustrated or annoyed or irritated etc. Developing emotional literacy and promoting mental health well-being really doesn’t mean you’re asking the child if they’re ok all the time. For example: It’s recognising when they’ve had a tough morning, perhaps because people at home have been arguing, and talking it through with them; it’s recognising when children need help developing their resilience; it’s recognising understanding when they need time out to process what’s going on in their lives.
Finding out how a child feels when they come into school enables the teacher to know who to check in with, who is masking. It is not a pity-based, lazy attempt at ticking a box. You have to get the child to engage to find out the true story.
Children need to be more resilient – yes, but my daughter’s experience has taught her that many such children come from families where several generations have never had to have resilience or at the other end of the spectrum, are too damaged to have resilience.
Since 2020 and the Covid pandemic, the experiences of the current generation of school children is unique; and so their perceptions are likely to be different when compared with adults.

Eric Kottke
Eric Kottke
25 days ago

This reminds me of “employee engagement surveys.”. I’ve had to remind my bosses that, if they keep handing employees pieces of paper and telling them to b***h, they are going to b***h, regardless of how “engaged” they are. The info they need is already in the turnover numbers.