The UK government recently issued new guidance for schools on how to teach Relationships and Sex Education (RSE). Children will no longer be taught contested gender ideology and they will not be taught about sex before the age of nine. This is a welcome corrective to a curriculum that had become inappropriately sexualised and politicised. 

However, in removing gender ideology and sex, but retaining RSE as a national curriculum subject, new content needed to be found. The latest guidance puts considerably more emphasis on teaching children about friendships, how to manage their emotions and how to recognise mental health problems. For example, children are to be taught:

  • that most friendships have ups and downs, and that these can often be worked through so that the friendship is repaired or even strengthened, how to manage conflict, and that resorting to violence is never right. 
  • the range and scale of emotions (e.g. happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, nervousness) that they might experience in different situations. Pupils should understand that worrying and feeling down are normal and affect everyone at different times and are not in themselves a sign of a mental health condition
  • how to recognise feelings and use varied vocabulary to talk about their own and others’ feelings. 
  • how to judge whether what they are feeling and how they are behaving is appropriate and proportionate. 
  • that it is common to experience mental health problems, and early support can help resolve problems.  

Taken together, these new recommendations comprise a significant therapeutic intervention that will be conducted in the classroom, with around thirty children at the same time, and led by a teacher who has no specific training in psychotherapy. 

This is a form of ‘group therapy’ carried out on children who may or may not have diagnosed mental health problems. This approach is not new. In Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren't Growing Up, American author Abigail Shrier writes that ‘For more than a decade, teachers, counselors, and school psychologists have all been playing shrink, introducing the iatrogenic risks of therapy to school kids, a vast and captive population.’ Back in 2008, Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes labeled the trend for routinely introducing therapeutic practices into the classroom ‘The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education’. 

Britain certainly appears to be in the grip of a mental health crisis. According to one recent study, 34 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 report symptoms of a mental disorder, such as depression or anxiety. This has increased from 24 per cent in 2000 and young women are one-and-a-half times as likely to be affected as men. Among university students, the rates are even higher. The UK’s centralised Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reports an astonishing 450 per cent increase in student mental health declarations between 2011 and 2021. A 2022 survey conducted by the mental health charity Student Minds claims that 57 per cent of respondents self-reported a mental health issue while 27 per cent said they had a diagnosed mental health condition. 

Putting feelings, emotions and mental health on the school curriculum seems to be a response to these statistics. Specifically, the new RSE guidance appears aimed at tackling the crisis of perceived mental health difficulties, that is, young people interpreting normal emotional states such as feeling worried or sad, as mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. It is understandable to be concerned about the inflated rhetoric that characterises discussion about mental health and want to reassure children who are suffering with nothing more than the ups and downs of everyday life.

However, there are good reasons to expect that the latest government intervention in this area will only exacerbate problems further. The new guidance assumes that the difference between ‘normal’ emotional states and mental health problems can be taught to children through weekly lessons. But diagnosis - particularly self-diagnosis - is not an exact science. Definitions of mental wellness and illness have evolved over time. Sadness in one era, or for one person, may be depression for someone else. If experts disagree, it may be difficult for teachers and children to reach firm conclusions.

Of more concern is evidence that simply raising awareness about mental health problems may contribute to an increase in mental health problems. Not only does it lead to ‘normal’ emotional states being interpreted as problematic but, crucially, as academics Lucy Foulkes and Jack L. Andrews argue in a 2023 paper: ‘this then leads some individuals to experience a genuine increase in symptoms, because labelling distress as a mental health problem can affect an individual's self-concept and behaviour in a way that is ultimately self-fulfilling.’ In other words, people repeatedly telling themselves they suffer from anxiety, and behaving in such a way as if they do have anxiety, can produce genuine symptoms. Unlike a placebo effect, where positive impacts are brought about as a result of a person’s beliefs about their own condition, constantly asking children to consider their own mental health may act as a ‘nocebo effect’ triggering negative mental impacts as a result of their own beliefs.

To return to the UK government guidance, teaching children about friendship in the context of the classroom (that is, through worksheets and exercises) rather than by simply letting them play unsupervised, complicates a process children have previously always negotiated for themselves,without formal instruction but as a routine part of growing up. Getting children to analyse their friendships creates problems where none exist; spontaneity is replaced with anxiety about having the ‘right’ relationships.

Likewise, having children dwell on their emotional responses to every situation is not normal. It is how they come not just to imbibe an adult vocabulary of ‘stress’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ but to apply these labels to themselves. The danger is that RSE lessons further reinforce an already-existing cultural trend for children to move from worried-well, to worried, to suffering from a clinically diagnosable ‘anxiety disorder’. 

It is good that children will be spared lectures on gender identity but replacing this with more lessons on mental health is unlikely to help one child suffering from a serious mental illness and will almost certainly further exacerbate the UK’s mental health crisis.