We can turn the tidal wave of mental health problems

The growing sense of a crisis in schools prompted his new book, says John Tomsett.

It seems that a day does not pass without a new report on the perilous state of children and young people’s mental health. Only last month a government report claimed that 110,000 children in London were suffering from significant mental ill health. It is hard to ignore the growing sense that we face a “mental health crisis” in our schools.

Indeed, in 14 years as a headteacher I have encountered more children presenting mental health problems in the past four years than I did in my first ten. It is something that we will have to address at a time of shrinking budgets.

Talking and writing about it is only the first step

In preparing my second book, This Much I Know About Mind Over Matter – improving mental health in our schools, I decided to talk to people who knew more than I did about it. Norman Lamb MP is a tireless mental health campaigner and his interview sets up the debate that threads throughout the book about the extent to which we have a “mental health crisis” in our schools.

I interviewed others such as Professor Tanya Byron, Natasha Devon, Professor Kathryn Ecclestone, Dr Ken McLaughlin, Claire Fox and Tom Bennett to get a rounded view. Each has his or her own views about the causes, and the extent, of our children’s mental health problems.

No matter what might be the cause, it is hard, as a head, to disagree with Tanya Byron when she says, “we have just got to get on with the business of trying to address this challenge of increasing mental health problems in young people”.

The more I read and the more I spoke to people, the more I became convinced we could do a number of things to avert a “mental health crisis” in our schools. The book proposes some simple, cost-effective measures to support our children and young people to manage their own mental health with greater confidence.

What has been interesting is the number of people who have said to me that it is a brave subject to write about. There is nothing “brave” about it, really. It seems to me that talking and writing about mental health is only the first step to improving our young people’s mental health.

Talking and writing about mental health is only the first step to improving our young people’s mental health

If we can create a school culture where young people can understand their own minds, where they realise that they don’t have to believe everything they think, and where everyone is aware of children’s mental health in the same way we are cognisant of their physical health, then we can turn the tidal wave of mental health problems and avert this oft-proclaimed “crisis”.

And then there is my mother. What drove my first book, Love Over Fear, was the narrative of my dad’s life; my mother’s life propelled Mind Over Matter. I explain what it was like to be brought up in a household with a mother who suffered from manic depression (now known as bipolar).

Mother was a bright spark, but left school at 13 because of her illness, never to return. I recount what it was like when she whirled around the house all night singing, what it was like when she had to be sectioned and what it was like to visit her in a dilapidated Victorian mental asylum. It is an honest, sometimes raw, account of life with my mother.

Last summer I had to show her what I had written. The previous night I hardly slept; it was like the night before I receive the GCSE results. She chuckled a few times as she read, and when she had finished she said it was great, that she wasn’t bothered, that it was all a long time ago and if it helped other people then I should publish it all.

Talking about mental health with openness, honesty and wisdom is not an easy thing to do. If Mind Over Matter makes it slightly easier for just one person to benefit from discussing his or her mental health, then it will have been worth the writing.


John Tomsett is headteacher at Huntington school in York

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