Should all schools offer workshops dedicated to mental health? These two students say “yes”

Every month, we at Youth Talks publish a four-article series about a key socio-political topic with a focus on young people, intending to trigger discussions with our readers. This article is the last of our January series, we will talk about schools and mental health.

Mental health has been widely discussed by the media since the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other alerting numbers, global rates of depression and anxiety rose by more than 25% in 2020, with 20 to 24-year-olds enduring the largest leap of all. 

So who better than students Agathe, 23, and Leo, 24, to discuss this issue? Youth Talks had a chat with them to understand why they believe their schools should be helping their students out with mental health workshops, what such programs could look like, and more largely why mental health at school matters.

Before we start, could you tell us a bit about yourselves?

Leo: I’m Leo, I’m from Angouleme (France), I’m 24 years old, and I attend a business school in Paris. I just finished an internship selling coaching services to sports professionals and entrepreneurs. I major in strategic consulting, but I don’t know what I want to do later. However, I’m optimistic about my professional perspectives and my future in general.

Agathe: My name is Agathe, I’m 23 years old and I’m from Nantes (France). I study chemistry in Lyon and I am currently on an exchange at Montreal University. I major in chemistry and analytical sciences and I’d like to work for an environmental cause, I can’t wait to finish studying to get working!

Can you tell us a bit about your personal experience with taking care of your mental health?

A: When I was preparing for the entry exams in school, we could attend sophrology workshops. I thought it was great because it helped a lot with stress management. It was especially useful for me as I had trouble falling asleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about my exam results and what engineering school I could get into. I learned how to mindfully breathe and other tips to relax and sleep better.

L: I did therapy when I was in middle school, it was very helpful for many reasons, including managing stress, self-confidence and concentration issues, but also learning things about myself that I didn’t necessarily want to discuss with my friends and family. I also just started therapy again, not because I am facing any critical issues but because I believe it’s very helpful to be accompanied by someone external to your life to learn how to manage your thoughts and feelings.

Can you think of any reasons why your generation is especially affected by mental health issues?

L: Yes, I have many friends that were affected by the COVID crisis. Even since lockdowns stopped, they can be less social, more suspicious of their surroundings, attracted by conspiracy theories, etc. They might have already been sensitive before the crisis, but if so they didn’t show it and the events made everything worse. I think that if we had mental health classes throughout our entire school education, this general feeling of anxiety could have been avoided or at least limited.

A: I agree with Leo, especially on the impact of lockdowns and how social isolation became a critical issue for students. Whereas schools didn’t do much to support students during the pandemic, I’m sure it would have been great to offer them mental health workshops they could physically attend. That way, they would have benefited from a safe place to openly talk about their struggles, realize they were not alone, and feel better about themselves, like a member of a caring community.

Do you believe schools should offer courses to help their students take care of their mental health? Why?

L: 100%. When I take into consideration what happened because of COVID, I am pretty confident a lot could have been avoided, because mental health workshops would have prepared us to manage our feelings in the face of scary, shocking situations like that. It would have helped us understand how we function as human beings and how to analyze any complicated situation.

A: I do, especially because the school system is in part responsible for the levels of stress we go through as students. I think it’s important that they help us take care of our mental health, it’s even in their interest as it would help us thrive and succeed.

Can you think of any obstacles to putting such a program in place?

A: When I think back to the sophrology workshops, I remember it was complicated to attend them because it meant taking two hours per week off studying. Even though they were optional, not every student was willing to do that, which was a shame because its benefits made me gain time in the long run.

L: If we force them to attend those classes, though, it might be counterproductive as it’s not how I picture a safe space. Some students might think it’s embarrassing or would not see these courses as self-care if they are just like the other ones.

What would the courses look like exactly?

A: So I think it would be great to have one mandatory introductory course, and then let students choose whether they take the following classes while offering credits for them, to underline they are as valuable as other classes in terms of scholar performance.

L: I think that it’s a great idea, to have a mandatory introductory course and then let students choose whether they want to get into meditation, psychology, sophrology… And if students are too embarrassed to share their personal experiences during the course, they could anonymously fill out a form at the end of it, a bit like we have to do today to rate our classes. The professors would be 100% trustworthy, and able to tell us what to do if we come up to them with specific issues.

A: It would be great to offer students an overview of the various branches of well-being and mental health, from sophrology to psychology to meditation and other practical, day-to-day, tips. Through that, they get an idea of what each discipline looks like and can choose to attend workshops in one of them afterwards.

L: Yes, I see it as a mix of lectures and workshops. Something gamified, where we learn how to meditate, breathe mindfully, and take care of our well-being, with predefined goals that we would break into intermediary objectives to show there’s always progress, a bit like the agile management method. Step by step!

Why do you think it’s your school’s responsibility, by opposition to the government, the student’s families, or themselves?

L: I think it’s a bit risky to let families or individuals take care of that aspect of their lives because we all have different backgrounds and depending on our context, we might never get the chance to take care of our mental health if no entity external to our close circle shows us the way.

For me, the best way to educate people about mental health is to get them as young as possible and that is doable through school programs. When we’re kids, we don’t really have a voice when we all face traumatic events. Ideally, it would start during middle school, with workshops to discuss our emotions, consent-related issues, puberty, and more sensitive topics that shouldn’t be taboo at school.

A: As kids, we can’t just simply take care of ourselves because we’re overwhelmed by our own thoughts. And families can’t always help because they are some that participate in making a young person’s environment stressful.

L: Another problem is that schools and governments tend to act retroactively, after something dramatic like a wave of suicides takes place, while mental health classes could help prevent other issues.

Do you have any recommendations for those who are interested in caring for their mental health?

A: Whenever I can, I meditate thanks to an app called Petit Bambou, which offers exercises that are more or less long depending on your planning and help out with various issues depending on your mood. I also listen to many, many podcasts, among which InPower, a series of interviews of very different people with inspiring life paths. Listening to other people’s stories helps me reflect on myself.

Psss… If you’re like Agathe but don’t speak French, there are anglo equivalents to Petit Bambou like the meditation apps Headspace and Calm, as well as podcasts similar to InPower like the ones listed here.

L: I recommend watching Forrest Gump, going to therapy, and reading the books Happiness at work and (in French only) La part du Colibri. L’espèce humaine face à son devenir. Also, I love taking free Ivy league courses online, there’s one by Yale called “The Science of Well-being for Teens” that’s really great.

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