At the end of August I wrote about the research I was doing on adolescent mental health literacy. The aim of this research was to learn more about where adolescents gain knowledge about mental health, specifically eating disorders, and whether they are likely to know the appropriate treatment options available for such conditions. There were several reasons for my interest in this topic, including the journey to parity of esteem that mental health has been on since it became a legal responsibility of the NHS in the Social Care Act 2012.
In July, the Department for Education announced plans to improve health education in schools, which I hope will contribute to improving the equity of perceptions and treatment of mental health conditions for all ages. The Government is currently seeking guidance from an expert panel as to how to improve the health education curriculum.
I found the results from my research* to be particularly pertinent to these plans, and to how we might consider improving mental health literacy in the UK.
There is a mental health spectrum. This seems obvious but when thresholds to access services and waiting times keep increasing, it’s really important to recognise the potential for early identification. It was notable that many early emotional, physical, psychological, and behavioural signs of eating disorders had become ‘normalised’ to the young people involved in this research. Acknowledging that there is a spectrum, teaching appropriately about ‘early’ signs and risk factors for emotional wellbeing, and, most importantly, having adequate preventative measures in place may well reduce the number of cases that escalate.
The language used to discuss mental health must be considered. An earlier idea confirmed through my research suggests that labelling mental health conditions can lead to positive and negative outcomes. The former being appropriate help seeking, the latter being stigma and social exclusion. As awareness improves around looking after our mental wellbeing and encouraging help-seeking, it will become increasingly necessary to resist over-medicalising emotional wellbeing. Beliefs and attitudes about mental health, what it means to ask for help, and what it means to live with a mental health condition will be formed partially within schools; there is a fantastic opportunity here to be thoughtful around the impact of these beliefs.
Young people attain most self-sought knowledge online. Young people use the internet to seek a myriad of things: to find peers to relate to (real and fictional), to seek advice on how to help themselves or friends with a mental health problem, and to simply learn more about a mental health condition. This is not a surprising revelation for a generation growing up with the internet, but it has implication for improving health education. First, as has been recognised by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, we have a duty of care to keep young people safe online. Second, using the internet as a tool for education just makes sense, whether this is through an interactive learning game, other e-learning tools, or media content. This could be significant for supporting the engagement and impact of health education.
These results and implications are not exhaustive but they’re worth consideration at a time when we have the opportunity to improve mental health literacy of children and adolescents in England.
* Results based on a very specific sample of young people, the sample consisted of 40 young people aged between 16 and 21 who logged into Kooth between June and August 2018 and were willing to be involved in the research.