As schools withdraw from the project of imparting knowledge, they turn to promoting mental health as their mission. The result is a preoccupation with identity, difference and well-being.
In a recent article, “We Shouldn’t Teach Children about Mental Health”, Charlotte Gill argues that it is not the role of schools to treat mental and emotional disorders, and their attempt to do so is harmful. Their methods are simple-minded; they make a virtue of self-absorption, with the result that healthy kids can end up “interpreting normal feelings as something sinister”.
She writes: “Last week, with very good intentions, BBC Learning launched online videos to introduce the topic to primary schools... Through five short pieces, children will learn about depression, panic attacks and eating disorders, with a further 40 new clips due to be added by the end of the year.” This and other similar measures, she argues, “prioritise the minority over the majority”.
I agree with most of this article, but I disagree that the interests of the majority and the minority are at odds. For anyone, it is demoralising to hear everyday stresses and strains constantly depicted as dangerous to mental health. Harping on in this way teaches kids to think of themselves as fragile, to flee difficulties, to see threats on every side. But it’s not just your average kid who suffers.
I am not persuaded that either the majority or the disadvantaged minority benefit by the therapeutic approach to education.
Does the preoccupation with difference — in gender, ability or ethnicity — promote a genuine ethic of inclusion? Does the typecasting actually help kids who are disadvantaged? Does the implication that difference is their defining characteristic make it easier for them to find acceptance? Do anxious kids really benefit from being so labelled? Or quiet kids by being told that they are depressed? Unhappy kids that they are suffering from a mental disorder? Is suicide averted by keeping it at the forefront of kids’ minds?
Gender and ethnicity are givens. They are not problems, and need no intervention.
Disability does need intervention, but not in the form of propaganda. Kids who struggle with their schoolwork for whatever reason need practical help.
Persecution on any grounds also needs intervention, but attitudes can’t be preached away. What should be censured and dealt with is the behaviour.
Kids with psychiatric problems need professional help, but it does them no service to draw attention to their affliction as an exercise in “empathy”.
As for neuroses (eating disorders, self-harm and so on), it seems to me that they are best managed by encouraging participation in the scholarly, artistic and sporting life of the school. Publicising them glamorises misery.
If we want kids to be kind to one another, we should promote activities that naturally engender warm feelings — group activities like games, theatricals and especially singing together. Sermons do not have the same effect. Nor does insisting that students collaborate on tasks that are best done individually.
The interests of the minority and the majority are not at odds, and to treat them as if they were is to seed resentment. Everyone benefits by shifting the focus from the self to the outside world.
The world is what we have in common. By keeping our eyes on it rather than ourselves, we can develop a sturdier sense of self and, whatever our superficial differences, a lasting feeling of fellowship.
The best balm for hurt feelings is an emotional investment in the world beyond ourselves.
John Stuart Mill was not the first to notice that happiness pursued is happiness lost, but no one has put the point better:
Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning. (Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, 1873)