The development of emotional skills as part of formal education could bring many benefitsby Lauren Davis / July 26, 2013 / Leave a comment
Nick Clegg meeting with mental health organisations in 2010. More to be done (Image: Cabinet Office) Up until a year ago, before debilitating anxiety and obsessive thoughts forced me to take time off from university and start psychotherapy, I thought I’d had the best education a person can have. From top primary and secondary schools in the UK and US to the Ivy League, I had perfected the skills the education system required of me: taking notes, conjugating verbs, analysing texts and memorising formulas. Fluent in the language of thesis statements and theories, I was oblivious to the language of minds and emotions—and seeing this repeated in so many of my peers has led me to wonder why such fundamental skills are left off the national curriculum. When my therapist referred to feelings and thinking patterns, asking me to identify emotions and observe subconscious thoughts, I felt I’d entered a whole new system of education. I was amazingly terrible (as many of us are) at figuring out something as fundamental as how I felt at various moments throughout a day—tired, lonely, or anxious. Due to this lack of emotional insight I had, for years, allowed emotions to build up without being expressed, and deemed “normal” excessive levels of anxiety which slowly but steadily ate away at my capacity to relax or cope with daily life. After many hours of hard work of the kind I never did in any classroom, therapy has given me the tools to restore my anxious mind to balance (most days), but also helped me to become a more emotionally literate person—more able to tend to my own mental health and relate to others with clarity and empathy. Now, I witness with sadness how most of my peers at university behave exactly like myself: running on empty, fuelled by anxiety, escaping their minds once a week by numbing them with alcohol. As I read the alarming statistics about mental health in Britain—one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year, including depression, eating disorders and phobias—I wonder: what if we’d all been encouraged to develop emotional skills earlier, as a part of our formal education? The type of talk therapy I receive is called cognitive behavioural therapy, and is the most commonly used treatment for anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The process is simple. A therapist helps you to identify which of your specific behaviours and thought patterns are disordered—for example, exaggeration of the negative, or obsessive tendencies—and you learn to become more aware of them, less controlled by them, and aim to develop healthier, more accepting relationships with your emotions. Of my therapist’s many mantras, two of my favourites are “thoughts are not facts,” which helps me to ignore the self-critical commentary inside my head, and “HALT,” an acronym (Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired?) that helps me to identify when I am most emotionally vulnerable and susceptible to anxiety. Such techniques should not be limited to psychologists’ offices after significant suffering has happened or a disorder has been diagnosed. Even in those as young as pre-teens, the first intervention is often medication, which is rarely a long-term solution. The mental tools that cognitive behavioural therapy provides are not just therapeutic treatments but vital life skills that should be taught in schools alongside traditional concepts of literacy. Each of us is born with a different mental profile, and while a few may learn to manage our minds without being taught, many more do not. Just as physical education was made mandatory in the 1980s, it’s time for mental health to be given a place in the curriculum. If we are committed to educating our children in how to look after their physical health, then why not also their mental health? An inability to understand and relate to our emotions is the root of anxieties, obsessions and addictions to food, drugs and alcohol that are costing us billions, not just in monetary terms but also in terms of human happiness. Emotional literacy is key to solving these problems, and these are skills that can be consciously cultivated and taught. Emotional education is a lifelong process—after a year of playing intensive catch-up, I’m only just beginning to feel somewhat literate. Let’s make it a priority to give the next generation a head start.