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“Mental health is a bit of a timebomb,” says Andy Cope, “if we don’t teach children how to take charge of their own mental well being.”
Figures show young people, particularly girls, are suffering high levels of mental health problems. According to a Department of Education survey of 14-15 year olds released earlier this year, more than a third suffer from anxiety or depression – an increase of 10 per cent in the past 10 years. The combination of social media pressure, sexual harassment, fear of failure and the endless target culture at school is proving a toxic cocktail for girls growing up in an age of uncertainty.
Resilience is already an important skill for those navigating the fast-changing world of work today, but will surely be even more vital when many of today’s jobs become obsolete as automation takes hold and new ones are created. Mental ill health already costs UK businesses an estimated £26 billion per annum, according to the Centre for Mental Health, and several have launched mental health forums and initiatives in the last few months.
For Cope, who did his PhD in the science of positive psychology and has spent 12 years studying what makes people happy, mental well being is something which will become increasingly important in the workplace. It makes sense therefore to teach it at school.
Fighting the system
Cope, who calls himself the Doctor of Happiness, set up his own company, The Art of Brilliance, to deliver wellbeing courses and talks around the world, including in the workplace, when he realised that stressed out teachers and children could really benefit. He decided to design a package for young people. “My feeling was that the earlier they could learn some techniques to keep them upbeat in a world that was not conducive to them feeling upbeat the better,” he says.
He adds that schools know the education system is harming children’s mental health and says several have introduced mindfulness programmes “around the edges” or activities such as yoga to help them feel less stressed – while being forced to cut back on things like drama and music which make them feel happy and provide important coping mechanisms.
Cope wants to go one step further. He is creating a “GCSE” course in wellbeing in a bid to get mental health taken more seriously. It consists of eight modules and is academically robust, he says. There is a lot on the science of mental health as well as information on practical techniques. There are community projects which focus on areas like random acts of kindness. Those taking the course have to write up their project and make a video about it.
Cope has already faced criticism that there is not enough space on the school curriculum to squeeze in another subject, but says if there is not a greater focus on mental well being things will get much worse. What’s more, he says, a course in wellbeing will boost students’ performance in all their other subjects. “If kids feel amazing and positive they will do better in their other subjects,” he states.
He adds: “I can’t change the education system. I can only do my little bit.” While he is finishing the GCSE, he has been delivering workshops in schools, getting children to work on a 10-point plan to improve well being in their school or community. He then goes back to the school six months later to do an Ofsted-style inspection on what they have achieved. Schools which do well get a banner which says “we are an outstandingly happy school”. “It has been a game changer,” says Cope.
Owning mental wellbeing
The children given a presentation and he checks whether they stuck to their plan and what impact it had. There have been all sorts of ideas, from assemblies on mental well being to parents evenings where children give a presentation to their parents on what they need to flourish. “That includes telling parents how their children need them to flourish and be positive,” says Cope. “It’s very powerful. The whole school comes alive. To truly embed happiness in the school culture it cannot come from top down. The kids need to own it.”
Cope says the GCSE idea is an attempt to get people to talk about mental wellbeing. He hopes the launch will attract a lot of attention, particularly given the Government’s statements about its commitment to addressing mental health. However, he adds that his aim is to stop young people becoming ill in the first place.