Written by Dr. Alex McGregor, Deputy Head of School
The next great frontier in education must by necessity be mental health. In his book Madness and Civilization, the French philosopher Michel Foucault analyzed Western societies’ historical reaction to and relationship with mental health. Foucault was scathing in his condemnation. He traced a history in which those suffering from mental health issues moved from alienation and marginalization to whole-scale separation from society. He argued that the crude force in the treatment of those with “mental illness” used in the late middle ages was simply replaced by more subtle means of control by the 19th century. Perhaps one significant legacy of the book is that it articulates how struggles with mental health was conceptualized in the West as a moral failure. Inmates in 19th-century institutions and sanatoriums were subjected to constant judgment, they were perpetually threatened and compelled through coercive corrections. Inmates were showered with guilt and shame.
The topic of mental health in schools is vast and certainly demands more consideration than this short blog. However, there is an important question that we must pose: to what extent, through our ignorance or otherwise, are students coping with mental health struggles today subjected to the same form of shaming that Foucault described from the 19th century? After all, it is all too easy to pass moral judgment on a student who cannot physically drag themselves from bed. It is all too easy to pass moral judgment on a student suffering from social anxiety disorders. A physical injury seems easier to identify: there’s a bruise, I can see it, your pain is real. A respiratory disease is apparent to the casual observer: you are coughing, I can see it, your pain is real. Mental health concerns do not manifest themselves so obviously. It is also more complex. We’re all on a spectrum of mental health but our position is not fixed or static. We fluctuate, sometimes day to day, sometimes year to year. Consequently, it becomes a greater challenge to identify and respond to mental health needs.
Moreover, empathy with someone suffering from flu or a sprained ankle is more emotionally straightforward. After all, we’ve probably experienced flu or a sprained ankle: we know how it feels. We know it is not your choice to limp or sneeze. We wouldn’t blame the flu sufferer for their fever. So it seems perhaps understandable why someone without experience of mental health issues may struggle to comprehend it. Add to this unhelpful mix the western paradigm that still broadly advocates that one should control one’s’ emotions: pull yourself together, get a grip, stiff upper lip. This is a paradigm in which repeated relapses must be met firmly and with discipline. The net result is that struggles with mental health are often treated with punitive consequences in schools today. If we are still living with the legacy of Foucault’s analysis on the 19th century then his conclusion must remain valid: such approaches, understandable as they may, are outdated and harmful.
At UWC ISAK Japan, we are committed to understanding mental health. It’s why we have two counselors who are fully embedded into our community. It’s why we have an advisory programme that everyone participates in. It’s why we reach out to external experts. We would not claim that we are on the vanguard of mental health treating in education but we wish to be. This is why we try to anticipate mental health pressure points throughout the year and try to take pre-emptive action accordingly. For example, we’ve just returned to campus following our three week December break. At UWC ISAK Japan, we want to create a positive, supportive environment, but we must also be mindful to avoid expecting everyone to be deliriously happy all the time and to avoid seeing those that are not as disruptors. But the honest truth is that sometimes it is hard to come back after a break. This is true even if you are happy, settled and enjoy your life at UWC ISAK. Three weeks is enough to exit old routines, build new ones and become accustomed to a different lifestyle. Returning can sometimes mean uprooting.
Conversely, a good portion of our students remained on campus and worked over the break: for them, it may be hard to start a new term without having had the chance to get away and break routines. In some instances, a pressure point might be something as inconspicuous as jet lag. Sometimes, jet lag overwhelms and disorientates us. It is hard to readapt under such conditions. For some of our students, there may be anxiety about what lies ahead: deadlines, exams, graduation, and new beginnings – all of which can be upsetting or unsettling. All of these elements, and many others besides, can be discombobulating for our students even though they smile and hug each other upon their return. And that’s without mentioning that it is literally freezing outside, which is hardly to conducive to feeling calm, rested and relaxed.
We strive to take action to promote good mental health and importantly, we try to avoid being reactive (though there are, of course, many instances when we need to react in real time). In our community assembly on the first day back, we shared five top tips that we hope will help all our students cope and manage to the best of their ability in the weeks ahead.
- Though it may be cold, we often have gorgeous blue skies. Wrap up warm, get out into the sun and absorb that wonderful vitamin D.
- Don’t forget to take some exercise and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Get the heart rate up, release endorphins and be inspired by the majesty of our surroundings.
- Stay warm, wear appropriate winter clothes, hydrate properly, eat well, rest and tend to your physical comfort.
- Make sure to spend time having fun with those you love. If you need to, reach out when you need help or support. There is always someone ready to listen.
- Be kind, patient and compassionate to yourself.
These tips are not designed as a mental health panacea. But they are designed to normalize a conversation about tending to both our physical and mental health needs. They are designed to help us understand better that mental health is something we all need to cultivate. It is never something to feel guilt or shame about. In the final analysis, if you are not well you are ill – there is no realm in-between. Perhaps by committing ourselves to an ongoing conversation about mental health we can cross this new frontier in education together.