Ensuring the environment in which a child can thrive is supported not just supportive – an educational challenge

Today I went to a large secondary school in north London to discuss how we might follow up and raise awareness of parental mental illness, and its impact on students, among the staff. Parental mental illness is one of a number of ‘adversities’ that families and young people have to deal with, and I wanted to convey the message that adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are an important focus for anyone who works with children, in health and education and even in the justice system. This research, which has been ongoing in the US for twenty years, looks at how much the early life of the child impacts their future life and health. The ACE 10 point scale measures the number of adverse experiences that a child has had to deal with and the consequences on both their mental and physical health, throughout the lifespan. Shockingly, the research indicates that a score of four or more will take 20 years off a person’s life expectancy. Unfortunately, many children who have a parent with a mental illness will score four and over.

I wanted to share these ideas because I think we, the adults who teach and care for young people, should think about what lies behind the dramatic increases in mental distress in children and young people that we are seeing at the moment. Why are our children self-harming, using drugs to forget their worries, and committing suicide in ever increasing numbers? I think that the ACE research provides some insight into the life circumstances of many children in the UK who live with multiple adversity. The ACE framework helps us to think about the origins of mental health problems and what can be done to alleviate some of the stressors. I am aware that our mental health system is creaking under the strain and that this is unlikely to change, therefore we need to think again, because what we are doing is not working.

What happened when I talked about this was a surprise to me, but it should not have been. The school staff looked shocked and depressed. I did not give them any hope, I just added to their stress and sense of being overwhelmed. I realised that we all need to feel able to do something and that the adults are also experiencing ‘toxic stress,’ which leaves them depleted and in despair. A teacher said, ‘we either become resigned or we resign’. Maybe the first thing we need to do is to address the needs of the professionals who have been given the burden of looking after our distressed children?

The most common reaction I had was that they remembered their own school lives: they put themselves in the place of the child and realised that the school’s approach to the children and education had affected their whole life, not just economically but psychologically, often damaging their self-esteem and relationships. They want things to be better for the next generation but they don’t know how to make that happen. They know there is a problem with ‘toxic stress’ (sustained and systematic pressures) and that we need to begin to work on removing the sources of stress if we are to improve the mental health of young people. Schools are under pressure as never before and we need to understand that this is not an environment, as it stands, where the burden of looking after the mental health and welfare of children will easily fit, it is already overburdened.

Finally, one ‘old school’ teacher (his own words) said that they ‘need someone they can trust not just someone to be nice to them’. How true!