This post is one I’ve been thinking about for a while. It’s not the first time I’ve spoken about my thoughts on the Irish education system. I’ve previously lamented the level of religious indoctrination in our primary and secondary schools. I’ve given my thoughts on consent education, and sex education as a whole in Irish schools. Today’s post is somewhat similar to those, but more with a retrospective look at the education I received in second level about mental health. Moreso, what mental health education I wish I had received, instead of the lacking amount that I did.
I attended secondary school in an all girls Catholic school from 2003-2009. For a Catholic school, it did provide quite a progressive sex education programme while I was there. As far as mental health education was concerned though, that was lacking. This was just a decade, up to a decade and a half ago, but it was a time where mental health wasn’t spoken about. We were teenagers, filled with hormones and troubles that seemed to take up our whole worlds but in the real world would be trivial. It was a time before Facebook was as big as it is now, before iPhones and proper smartphones became the norm. Bullying was rife, but it was lesser outside of school because of the lack of smartphones and their capability to bring the suffering home.
I was bullied throughout my school career. I was short, I wore glasses for some of primary school, I wasn’t like the other girls. Through the middle of my secondary school education, I was miserable. My life was being made miserable by one girl in particular. I had few friends in school, and was living for my weekend hobby of drama, where I could be anyone else but me. I thought I was going crazy. I knew of very few people who suffered with depression, despite there being a huge suicide epidemic in teenagers in my county at the time. Those who had it were seen as attention seekers. I knew friends who self harmed, but it wasn’t something that anything was done about. Again, attention seekers.
I could have done with being told “You’re not going insane”. Being told that depression and anxiety are real and valid, and things to get on top of early in life. Instead I felt shunned into the silence, unable to put words on my emotions. In my mid-twenties I still have trouble with that – putting actual words on what I’m feeling, so what was 14 year old me going to do? My story isn’t just my story, it’s the story of countless others who were let down in the education they received about their own health and psychological health in general.
Our school system is built on rote learning. As much as attempts against this with increased levels of project work and a lesser impact of end-of-year exams come in, it is still a system which rallies around the “what you know on the day” ethos. This is a flawed system. Too many people are driven to distraction by the endless cramming in of information they are never going to use in their lives.
Secondary school is not the only culprit of this madness, universities too have a role to play here. I’ve watched friends crumble in exam halls, often for years believing themselves stupid and incapable due to their bodies fight-or-flight response to these stressful conditions. I’m not saying examinations are inherently bad, we do of course need a system in which to regulate our students and the education they are receiving. We need to make sure that all students are heading out into the world with the knowledge they need to cope in the big bad world and that is where we are failing.
Things are getting better, but as with everything in this country, improvement is slow. Lots done, lots more to do, as the old saying political hacks would rally around put it. We’re in an environment now where celebrities and famous faces are speaking out about their battles with mental illness. We’re told time and time again that admitting our mental health issues is no longer seen as a sign of weakness. All of that is great but it isn’t enough. We need to make sure that the generations that are coming through our education system do not encounter the scars that those who have already gone through did. That sounds dramatic when I put it like that, but I do consider myself scarred from the days of “being insane” throughout the middle of my secondary school education. Mental Health Education would have gone a long way towards that.
Normalisation is down to education, and we should be doing all we can do to remove the stigma of mental illness from the earliest points in our classrooms.Â It’s all well and good to tell students in exam years to make sure to take time out to sleep, exercise etc but you have to create an environment in which this is possible without them facing into falling behind. The points race is an unfair drudge which has caused psychological damage to extents we don’t even know. Further to this the supports need to be in place for students to turn to.
I was lucky that I had a wonderful guidance counsellor who was willing to listen and provide assistance – this however was in boom time, before major cuts were made to our education sector. In the economic downturn, these services were not prioritised and so numbers of teachers employed in these roles fell dramatically.
The impact is felt more in theÂ disadvantaged schools, as significantly more of these schools can not afford to pay for the services of a guidance counsellor. While these teachers do work in ensuring that students are on the right track after graduation, in helping with subject choices, college applications etc, they do also offer valuable services in the psychological welfare of students. To have these services slashed and allocated based on who can afford it is unfair, and in my opinion unethical. If the government is serious about reducing the large mental health problem we have in modern Ireland, this is a step they can not ignore.
As with all of these pieces I write on the education system, I write it with the wish that by the time my son is dressed in his uniform and on the way out the door, it won’t be relevant. However reality is never far behind these thoughts, and I know that we will be battling an imperfect system if changes are not made and teachers, parents and educated opinions not listened to. I’m heartened by the introduction of mental health education guidelines last year, but the sceptic in me is loath to believe they will actually happen the way they say they should.
Mental Health education is a necessary component of our education system if we are to consider the education our children receive to be well rounded. I live in hope that the Department of Health and the Department of Education realise this soon, before damage is done to our future generations.