Our 'higher purpose'... Responding to the challenge of improving young people's mental health.

As a part of the RSA network (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), I took interest in their recent articles (here and here) regarding the government's recent green paper on 'Transforming children and young people's mental health provision'.  It is of course laudable and necessary for the government to have identified the need to reform and improve mental health provision for young people.  In my own experience as a headteacher, CAMHS and other social services which exist to support young people with mental health problems are struggling to cope - waiting lists are often substantially longer than 6 months and there are insufficient numbers of counsellors and mentors to provide the much needed support.  Indeed, the charity 'Young Minds' calculated that £85 million was cut from children's mental health services between 2010 and 2015... so the government's decision to publish a new national child and adolescent mental health survey later this year is sensible and it will be very interesting to see the findings and to discuss the challenges and the proposed ideas for how we can respond.  

Especially interesting for us at EUTC.  In our fairly small creative college, which specialises in 'hands on', project-based learning in digital media arts, performance and production technology, this is a real issue for us and one that speaks directly to our vision and core purpose.  This is because students with 'Social, Emotional and Mental Health' needs (SEMH) are a very significant population in this kind of creative arts institution.  The last national survey into young people's mental health found that 12% of 11 to 16 year olds struggle with SEMH needs.  This is already a concerning number, but in our very cool and creative community, it's 24%.  I must stress that this is not considered a problem - far from it.  Our experience is that these young people are 'alternatives', innovative thinkers - 'outside of the box' - compassionately dealing with their own self discovery and associated challenges and supporting each other.  We have hardly any instances of bullying.  Young people with a range of emotional, social and mental health experiences have found a home at EUTC and within this field of creative arts.  This is no surprise, there has long been a fascinating alchemy between creative thinkers and 'eccentrics'; melancholics, deep 'wonderers' and alternative 'originals'. 

This is not to romanticise mental health problems which are distressing and can become unacceptable disturbances for young people's development, but it is to recognise that the 'crazy' or 'gloomy' stigma is also a destructive and untrue stereotype.  Creative expression and the celebration of difference is a vital way in which young people can be empowered and encouraged to develop high self esteem, confidence and a sense of valued voice.

"Fostering creativity from an early age helps children to remain creative throughout life and to grow into successful professionals, entrepreneurs and leaders." (RSA)     

No one has formally asked me for my opinion (yet), however if I was to give it anyway, I would say that I believe there is a correlation between a dominant, mechanistic school system, which often fails to recognise teaching and learning as complex relationships, and the more and more young people feeling like the systems in which they grow up (family, social groups, education, religion) fail to relate to them in a tangible and authentic way.  By 'tangible and authentic' I mean a way that is ingenuous and dialogic; a way which is about listening and relating in what we do and make.  That is why creative and artistic expression is such a meaningful area of specialism for so many of these young people often labelled as 'disillusioned' or 'troubled' - because it is about exploring and trying and responding - it is aesthetic, relational and experiential - it values interpretation.  It is 'free-er' and less commodified, less about desired behaviours producing certain institutionally preferred outcomes, or what Julian Astle calls "the time-consuming and morale-sapping game of education-by-numbers".  (RSA

He goes on to say that there are schools brave enough to buck the trend of an ever narrowing focus on government 'target hitting'.  He even calls on schools to be inspiring and talks of a campaign to get our schools focused on the substance of education which he defines as: "the relationship between the teacher, the student and the text (in its broadest sense). A campaign to focuses the public and professional debate about education on its highest purposes – like personal fulfillment, societal progress and human flourishing – rather than the proxy goals of tests, targets and league tables (still less the tactics for passing, hitting and climbing them)". (RSA)

It is my contention that in addition to focusing on education's higher purpose (as though that isn't enough), this approach will also create educative environments in which students with SEMH needs will be more likely to succeed and find a way of 'succeeding' which sits more harmoniously alongside their well being and good social, emotional and mental health.  Indeed as explored in our recent documentary 'why this kind of education matters', successes like personal fulfillment, industry credible experience and entrepreneurship can be overlooked by the mainstream 'target hitting, league table' model and yet these successes are truly inspirational and what our industry partners are calling for.

Chris Mitchell