Around one in ten British secondary school children suffer from a mental health disorder. Prejudice from peers influences these children’s self-esteem, delaying recovery and dissuading them from seeking appropriate medical advice. Policy-makers increasingly emphasise the importance of mental wellbeing in schools, yet little is known about how to intervene to improve young people’s knowledge about and attitudes towards mental illness.
Our research revealed that as teenagers’ knowledge about mental illness increased, their prejudice against people with mental illness, and subsequently perceiving them to be dangerous, decreased. Prejudice and lack of knowledge were highest in boys and in schools located in socially and economically deprived areas.
We worked in collaboration with the Co-operative Academies Trust, alongside colleagues in the Department of Health Sciences and the Department of Education, to trial the Mental Health in Schools (MHIS) intervention in over 30 schools across North England, equating to a population of around 20,000 children. The intervention is designed to be delivered as part of the school’s Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education curriculum, and focuses on informing teenagers about mental health and eliminating some of the myths about mental illness.
The MHIS intervention led to a significant increase in teenagers’ knowledge about mental illness and a significant reduction in prejudice. After the intervention, teenagers knew more about mental health disorders and reported fewer negative views about those who suffer from them. No such effects were found in the control groups of children, who had received the standard PSHE curriculum.
In the current phase of the project, researchers have worked directly with teachers and teenagers to explore ways in which the MHIS resources could be made more relevant and appealing to groups of children who show the least knowledge and most prejudice (boys and disadvantaged children).
The new adaptation of Mental Health in Schools has been trialled in schools in inner city areas with more ethnically diverse populations and the plan is for the MHIS resources to be used nationally as part of the PSHE Education curriculum to tackle misunderstanding and prejudice in relation to mental illness.