Mental health issues are rising and we can’t ignore them

Depression is becoming a major health issue for adults, leading Justin Thomas to ask why schools do not prepare their students for all of life's challenges.

Depression in adults is rising, but the skills to deal with the vicissitudes of life are not taught alongside subjects like mathematics and physics.
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It is estimated that in the US, about 200 million workdays are lost to depression each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the cost of this depression-related absenteeism at $44 billion [Dh162bn].

In the UK, depression has now overtaken lower back pain as the leading cause of lost workdays, according to a 2014 report by the Health and Safety Executive. In our region, Qatar’s Supreme Council for Health paints a similar picture, identifying depression as the nation’s leading disease burden.

We know this, and yet our schools still focus on preparing young people for the world of work, while failing to prepare them for the emotional turmoil that life in general will inevitably throw at them. And so our workforce is increasingly decimated, with around 1 in 10 laid low by depression at some point.

Consider also the related issue of “presenteeism”: being present, but performing so poorly as to actually have a negative impact. It’s highly likely that a lot of presenteeism is also attributable to depression.

Last month the World Innovation Summit for Health was held in Doha. Lord Darzi, a former UK health minister, was one of the keynote speakers.

He spoke about many schools operating as “exam factories”, with little or no concern for the psychological well-being of pupils. The answer, Lord Darzi suggested, is to also include “happiness classes”.

This is not actually as strange as it sounds. What Lord Darzi is really proposing is routine exposure to techniques that help people better manage stress. He talked about firmly embedding these techniques within school curricula, rather than just paying occasional attention to them.

Not only might such an initiative reduce the incidence of economically burdensome psychological problems later on in life, it might also improve academic performance.

Consider exam anxiety. Highly effective techniques exist to manage such problematic levels of anxiety, but how many schools pay anything more than lip service to effective support? Childline, a UK charity providing a telephone helpline for stressed youngsters, reported that calls related to stress more than tripled in 2014. Calls to its charity’s helpline concerning exam stress are now even more common than calls about bullying.

A more formal study, reported in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, looked at trends in adolescent mental health spanning 25 years. The study found that the rate of emotional problems among teens had increased by at least 70 per cent.

Proponents of the “exam factory” might argue that emotional self-management skills are the responsibility of parents, and that schools shouldn’t waste valuable exam-prep time on such activities.

That is, perhaps, the case, but the rising rates of depression suggest that our DIY (home-coaching) approach is no longer working – if it ever did. Simply, the world has changed. What does an unplugged 50-something know about getting badly “burnt for catfishing on Tumblr” (pretending to be someone you are not, in case you didn’t know).

Furthermore, preventive psychological techniques have made huge advances in the past few decades, and those best placed to benefit from them are young people who have yet to experience a depressive episode.

The lack of access to such techniques is a society-wide tragedy, punctuated by every case of anorexia, self-injurious behaviour and suicide.

Sadly, there are further costs down the line. Adult mental health problems very often have their roots in childhood and adolescence, and by failing to act early we miss a vital opportunity for health promotion.

The World Health Organisation suggests, “there is no health without mental health”, so too, there is no intelligence without emotional intelligence. More of our schools should better embody these ideals.

Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas