By Lesley Franklin, Principal at George Heriot’s School

AT a recent hospitality industry conference, I spoke with a number of Scottish business leaders about the rise in absences and drop in productivity amongst their employees, often caused by mental health problems.

The statistics surrounding mental health are alarming. Globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness, whilst suicide is the largest cause of death in people under 35. Furthermore, one in five young people aged 16-24 experiences a common mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, at any one time.

Statistics like these highlight why it is so important to address matters of mental health and wellbeing from an early age. To combat the problem of poor mental health in young people, schools can and should take a leading role. Positive values and role modelling must come from the top.

It is so important that young people are equipped with the necessary tools to take care of their own wellbeing. There are a number of factors that can impact wellbeing – one that is often overlooked is diet. What we eat impacts how we feel. A diet high in fruit, vegetables, unprocessed grains and fish, for example, can cut the risk of depression by up to 35 per cent.

However, teaching young people about healthy eating becomes somewhat redundant if they cannot cook for themselves. That’s why equipping them with basic life skills like cooking is so important. Recently, I embarked on a cooking project with my S6 students. We cook our lunch for an hour and a half each Wednesday morning then sit and eat our creation together. This puts pleasure, conversation, camaraderie, connection and education at the heart of cooking. Through this, the young people are challenged to think more carefully about the food they are eating. Coming together in this way promotes positive mental health.

Schools should share is that it is good to speak about mental health. Seventy-five per cent of adults with a diagnosable mental health problem will experience the first symptoms by age 24 – ideally, young people should be made aware of the importance of talking about their feelings well before these symptoms first manifest.

Schools can help by creating a safe environment where speaking out is commonplace by actively introducing specific programmes. At our school we have introduced a number of programmes, such as Love Your Mind, run by S6 students. Each year, a group of students, alongside two teachers, raise awareness of mental health within the school. They hold talks and conversations with our students on how they can take action to preserve their wellbeing. Each year the group launches a new campaign – this year, it is Mind Your Head, where students host a range of activities to promote wellbeing. It is important that the activities are good fun as well as being designed to raise awareness.

Finally, spotting the signs of poor mental health is vital. At school, we keep an eye out for changes in students’ disposition, such as changes in activity level, increased isolation, failure to take care of personal appearance, expressing feelings of failure or loss of hope, changes in eating or sleeping habits, and talking or joking about suicide amongst other factors. We encourage our staff and students to learn mental health “first aid” – spotting symptoms, showing that they are happy to help and knowing how to offer support, as well as where to seek professional help.

Steps like these may seem relatively minor but can have a huge impact on young people’s mental health. Crucially, they can provide them with the resources they need to care for their own wellbeing, so that when they do face poor mental health in adulthood, they are better able to cope.