Tuesday 24 October 2017

#My1000Hours: 'If I was Minister for Education, I know what I'd invest in'

With race day just two weeks away, Niall Breslin wants you to challenge the stigma around mental health issues

Niall Breslin
Niall Breslin

Niall Breslin

I was recently watching a sunday morning current affairs programme, where the UK Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan was being interviewed on the future plans and strategies of her department. Their goals were to invest heavily in Maths and English to transform the United Kingdom into the top performing education system in Europe, in these subjects.

Personally, I am sick of hearing the people charged with progressing and improving education systems consistently ignore the fundamental failure of our governments to implement programmes of emotional wellness, and mental fitness in our schools.

Although it was the UK secretary, I feel the mindset of neglect in this area is similar to how its approached, here in Ireland, on a macro scale. We over-emphasise academic ability, and we continue to offer little or no support in relation to coping strategies for our teenagers at a curriculum level.

We have individuals schools and teachers passionately developing programmes to highlight the importance of mental health awareness but there are still schools in our country that put their heads in the sand when it comes to the topic.

Therefore it's important that over the coming years that a long-term plan is established to put mental health on our Leaving Cert curriculum. If we are freely taught physics, chemistry and biology, why can't we implement a subject that closely educates our teenagers in emotional and mental wellness?

Although I feel teaching this subject for pupil development once a week would be a good start, in order to really see a profound effect, it has to be incentivised and put on the Leaving Cert curriculum. I sincerely do not think there is one teacher in this country that would support the implementation of such a programme.

Our teenagers are often referred to as 'generation anxiety'. They live in a world far different to one I grew up in. Technology is a juggernaut that will run you over if you do not jump on board. It's not stopping and its possibilities are endless. The mass media contributes to promoting non-reality as reality, putting serious pressure on our teenagers to adhere to certain standards.

We have an education system that educates our youth for 14 years and expects them to prove their academic worth over a two-week period. We have created an economy that will be crippled with dept for the foreseeable future due to environment of greed and corruption the Celtic Tiger promoted, and our teenagers have inherited this.

So, with all these issues facing our teenagers, we fail to arm them with any coping strategies or mechanisms to help deal with these pressures, and expect them to march in adulthood unscathed and emotionally intact. As a teenager, I found myself having to deal with horrifying panic attacks and crippling insomnia. I feared going to bed, as every time I lay down I would begin gasping for air and suffocating. I isolated myself from my friends and peers and grew increasingly frustrated and terrified.

I sincerely felt no one on this planet was experiencing what I was going through. I felt possessed and deeply uncomfortable in my own skin, praying for someone to say something, to make me feel like I was not losing my mind. No one ever did. If I was made aware of what it was that I was going through, things could have been so different. We have a duty of care to not allow our teenagers suffer in silence, and our weapon of choice for achieving this, is our education system.

Investing in Maths and English is all fine, but neither subject comforted or helped me through the mental distress I endured as a teenager in school. As important as they are, they mean nothing if your mind is struggling. Academic achievement, at the expense of human development, is not a sustainable reality for the hostile and pressurised environment our teenagers are now finding themselves in.

Many organisations are putting incredible resources into the training of our educators in emotional wellness up and down this country. Groups like Cycle Against Suicide, Soar and Spunout travel all over Ireland going into schools and colleges spreading the message that "it's ok not to feel ok". I really feel it's time our education system as a whole put this on the agenda in a real, practical and pragmatic way.

Knowing quadratic equations or the intricacies of the language in Shakespeare's sonnets certainly is academically beneficial, but knowing how to understand and deal with the mind, and cope in difficult situations could save lives.

If I was Minister for Education, I know what I would be investing in.

To enter the 'Irish Independent' My1000Hours 5km/10km race in association with Berocca, on Saturday, March 7 visit www.FITMagazine.ie/events.

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