Why schools need to talk about mental health?

Tonight on Channel 4 Edna O’ Brien, the 80-year-old Irish writer give out some sterling advice. She said “never lose your feelings” as she admitted to often feeling lonely and that her “gift of language has been her bread and wine”. As a fellow Irish woman, I admit that my love of education has been my “bread and wine”.

Just before that my friend and a fellow food teacher had texted me to say that she was very upset as one of her pupils, a seemingly happy-go-lucky pupil had jumped of a bridge and tried to commit suicide. He had survived but was in a very bad state as he was also hit by a car upon impact. Staff and pupils at the school were trying to come to terms with the shocking news.

My mind flashed back to when I myself had started teaching and one of my colleagues a young man, in his first year of teaching killed himself on New Year’s Eve. I had chatted to him on a night out over Christmas.He seemed in good spirits embracing the festivities. Even though I did not know him very well I was very upset, as were the pupils when they returned to school to hear the news. Staff and pupils sat around dazed, unable to comprehend that his books sat on his desk, his writing on the board, his seat in the staff room remained unoccupied.  Each teacher had to speak to their form groups about his death. It was one of the most difficult moments of my teaching career. No training can ever prepare you firstly for losing a pupil or losing a colleague and secondly, breaking that news to pupils and to see the disbelief and pain etched on their face. They ask “why”? As teachers, we are expected to have the answers but sometimes there are no answers. We are all human. We all feel.

Parents should not have to lose their children to suicide and teachers should not have to look at an empty chair in their classroom as a result of suicide. I firmly believe that education can play a massive role in the promotion of mental health and as a preventative strategy in preventing mental health illness or in reducing the severity of the symptoms of such illnesses. It is a topic I could discuss at length but as usual I will speak about what I know about – the role of food education in mental health promotion. As educators the first think we can do is to create an atmosphere in which pupils and staff feel comfortable discussing mental health.It may be good to start it of with a whole school assembly. Here is one which I have recently given before exams.I am happy for others to use it and to open up the discussion in schools and to encourage staff and pupils to understand the importance of nutrition in looking after mental health.

It is a sensitive topic but one well worth discussing in schools.

Assembly Notes

The impact of nutrition on mental health

As pupils are coming into the assembly the following mental health awareness clip will be played from You tube

‘Unity’:  Mental Health Awareness Thought Cloud

Good Morning.

The clip you have just seen was a mental health awareness clip from thoughtcloud films and the music you will hear on the way out will be living in the moment by Jason Mraz

In this morning’s assembly I would like to raise your awareness of the concept of mental health and the impact of food and nutrition on mental health.

Mental health affects everyone, you, your friends, family, teachers, the prime minister. Mental health is just as important as physical health.

In preparation for this assembly I asked a number of pupils to write down a word that comes to mind when you hear the words mental health.

You will see a list of these words on the PowerPoint in front of you which demonstrates that we all associate mental health with various words or meanings.

The most cited words were depression and illness which is not really surprising as it is common for people in general to think of mental health as ill-health and depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain. Other words such as self harm and eating disorders remind us that mental health is a serious and important issue and as one pupil rightly points out in the list of words is that you can’t always tell if someone has a mental health disorder.

I think my favourite word among the list is the word ‘human’ as it indicates that mental health is indeed relevant to us all. We are all human and we all have mental health. Some people may have mental health disorders but help is available and recovery is certainly possible. It is likely that at some point in your life time you may know someone with a mental health disorder. There is also lots we can do as individuals to maintain positive mental health and to build resilience so that we can cope with the stresses that life inevitably throws at us.

The World Health Organization defines mental health

“ as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community” .

Poor mental health is a risk factor for physical ill-health such as heart disease, obesity and is also associated with rapid social change, stressful work conditions, gender discrimination, social exclusion, unhealthy lifestyle, risks of violence, and human rights violations.

In terms of statistics:

It is important to remember that health is a process, it is never a static state. It moves backwards and forwards along a continuum and sometimes it is ok not to be ok. It is important that we all do our part to recognize that mental health matters to us all and by doing this we can help to reduce the stigma associated with mental health disorders. I would like to show you the following video clip which emphasizes the point that we all need to be open to looking after and talking about our mental health.

Watch the video clip – You tube – What does mental health mean to you?  by Jack.org

I would now like to tell you a little about the impact of nutrition on mental health. Mental health problems are believed to be the result of a combination of factors, including age, genetics and environmental factors. One of the most obvious, yet under-recognized factors in the development of major trends in mental health is the role of nutrition. Optimizing nutrition is a safe and viable way to avoid, treat or lessen mental illness. Nutrition matters.

Brain chemicals, neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine influence the way we think, feel and behave. They can be affected by what we’ve eaten. A sufficient balance of these neurotransmitters is essential for good mental health, as they are influential in feelings of contentment and anxiety, memory function and cognitive function. This becomes apparent when people have neurotransmitter imbalances or deficiencies, which can create many symptoms, ranging from difficulties in sleeping to feeling unmotivated or anxious. Poor nutrition is a significant and modifiable risk factor for the development of a mental health disorder.

Please can you raise your hand if you eaten breakfast this morning? Well done you have taken an important step in looking after not just your physical health but your mental health too. Research has shown that good nutritional intake is linked to academic success. In particular, several studies have shown that providing children with breakfast improves their daily and long-term academic performance and their behaviour. Just like the heart, stomach and liver, the brain is an organ that is acutely sensitive to what we eat and drink. To remain healthy, it needs different amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and water

One of the most important things you can do to promote positive mental health is to avoid skipping meals. Even though we think of hunger as a primarily physical experience in that our bellies can rumble and we can get stomach ache; it is also important to remember that hunger can make learning and concentration difficult at every age. Hunger takes a toll on our mood, our focus, and our sense of well-being. Hunger causes a decrease in heart rate and oxygen levels, making it that much more difficult to perform any kind of physical activity and that is why top athletes know the importance of adequate nutrition to be successful. If you have not eaten breakfast this morning your body is lacking the energy it needs to work productively; it is likely that you will feel more irritable and have difficulty concentrating in lessons. It is also important to have a substantial meal at lunch time to fuel your brain for afternoon activities.

Keeping well hydrated is essential for positive mental health. If we become dehydrated it can affect our mood. Recent research found that even mild dehydration a 1.5% loss in normal water volume in the body can have a negative effect on our mood. The government advise drinking 6-8 glasses of water a day, which is about 1.5 – 2 litres.

Please can you raise your hand if you had caffeine for breakfast?

Caffeine, found in tea, coffee, cola drinks and chocolate, is probably the most widely used behaviour-modifying drug in the world. We often choose to drink it if we are feeling tired and irritable, because it can give us a boost and help us to concentrate.

Having a cup of coffee or tea also has a lot of positive psychological associations. We meet a friend for ‘coffee and a chat’ or give ourselves a break by sitting down with a cup of tea, and these things are very important.

But too much caffeine (which is a different amount for each of us) can cause symptoms, such as anxiety, nervousness and depression. Unfortunately, energy drinks, which are marketed to appeal to teenagers, have a high caffeine content. Energy drinks can cause a number of unwanted side effects for teenagers. The caffeine in energy drinks can lead to jitters, nervousness, upset stomach, headaches, difficulty concentrating, and frequent urination. Any caffeinated drink can cause these side effects. The difference with energy drinks is that some contain excessive amounts of caffeine. An energy drink such as red bull contains about 80 mg of caffeine. Caffeine also disrupts sleep which can have a major impact on mood.

Although some fat is often considered unhealthy, it is vital for proper brain functioning. Omega 3 and Omega 6 oils perform vital functions in the structuring of the brain cells and have positive effects on mental health. Oily fish is an excellent source of omega oils. Too much consumption of fats such as saturated and trans fatty acids present in foods such as processed cakes, biscuits and crisps can directly affect the structure and substance of the brain cells and have an negative affect on mental health.

Protein is needed for growth and repair of brain cells. A deficiency in certain protein foods may leave someone feeling, depressed, apathetic, unmotivated and unable to relax. Tryptophan is found in eggs, lean meat and beans and it is important in producing serotonin. Stable and sufficient levels of serotonin are associated with good mood, well-being and regular sleep patterns.

Fluctuations in blood sugar levels are also associated with changes in mood and energy, and are affected by what we eat. The brain runs on the fuel of glucose which is derived from carbohydrates. Slow releasing carbohydrates in food like whole –grains cereals such as pasta and rice and vegetables are better at fueling the brain. Refined sugary foods such as white bread, sweets, and sugary snacks will give you an initial fantastic sugar rush but will be shortly followed by a sugar low which can have a negative impact on mood. Chocolate is a classic example of this: it contains substances that boost levels of noradrenaline, which subsequently boost our feelings of well-being and enthusiasm for life. However these feelings can be short-lived as the sugar and caffeine rush wears off.

As a society we are constantly bombarded with an array of healthy eating messages which can be confusing. The key word in nutrition for health is balance. If you eat a balanced diet and have treats in moderation then you are trying hard to have a healthy diet. In summary here are some top tips for eating for good mental health.

  • Eat mind fully – Eating with the attention necessary for noticing and enjoying your food and its effects on your body
  • Eat breakfast everyday
  • Avoid skipping meals
  • Stay well hydrated
  • Aim to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
  • Have caffeine in moderation – avoid over consumption of energy drinks
  • Eat complex carbohydrates such as pasta, rice and oats
  • Have processed foods in moderation – avoid over consumption of foods high in sugar and saturated fats
  • Consume omega 3 oils

As exam week approaches I would encourage you to eat mind fully to fuel your brain to succeed and to enable you to partake in your exams with a positive mental attitude.

Please bow your head for the prayer

Give us the wisdom and strength to eat mindfully and to care for our minds and our bodies.

Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed with the stresses of life – help us to reach out and ask for support when needed.

Information for this assembly was taken from various sources including “feeding minds” by the Mental Health Foundation, the young minds website, the Mind website and from other reliable resources.

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