Jeremy Thomas is an author and speaker who raises mental health awareness at schools across the UK. In a year in which 90% of headteachers have reported an increase in mental health problems among pupils over a five-year period, he tells us how the subject should be covered by the school curriculum.
What does your talk How to Stay Sane in an Insane World cover?
Someone in every family will suffer from poor mental health at some point, and I try to give an honest and informative talk which normalises the subject. I speak about depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, self-harm and ADHD. These are things you can function with, just about, and the main tenet of the talk is that prevention is better than cure.
I open by confirming it really is an insane world, thanks to people like Trump, Putin and Boris Johnson. I then give a trajectory of my own struggle with bipolar disorder: how I worked in the music business and became relatively successful while I was quite young; how it all went very, very wrong and I came close to losing everything; and how it’s all alright now.
The rest of the talk is about building a toolkit of things you need to stay sane: simple things like sleep, exercise, self-esteem, resilience, human contact; and methods of dealing with anger, stress and anxiety. I wrote it in the hope the children might learn something that could allow them to help or better understand either themselves or someone important to them, whether now or at some other point in their lives.
How did you start giving talks at schools about mental health?
In 2006, Tony Hughes, an old friend who happens to be a doctor, invited me to help create a documentary about manic depression. That project became Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive, which went on to win an Emmy in 2007. Tony and I then published a book, You Don’t Have to be Famous to Have Manic Depression: An A-Z Guide to Good Mental Health, in 2008. As a result of the book I became involved with an agency which organises talks about addiction at schools. I now visit as many as 50 schools a year.
Do you think mental health should be covered in the school curriculum?
I’m a complete believer. It should start at the age of seven: an age where things can become difficult for young people. I think it would be a massive help if kids had access to very basic information about how to look after themselves, particularly with regards to self-esteem. It’s difficult to explain what self esteem is to a child that young, but there are ways. If we get this subject right, a lot of things will follow from it. We’d have a society that understands and can help one another.
I think budget stands in the way, though – at both the state and private sector. Sadly, in a lot of schools they’ll have situations where a child asks for help, the school refers them to to CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services], and then they find there’s a six-month waiting list.
Is there still a stigma attached to mental health?
Yes. But it’s far, far less than, say, 30 years ago. People like Stephen Fry have made a massive contribution to getting rid of that stigma. Unfortunately, however, the word ‘mental’ was hijacked many years ago, and it still has a lot of bad connotations. I try to tell school pupils that mental health doesn’t discriminate and things can happen to any of us. Say, for example, your cat gets run over; your parents get divorced; your job is relocated to Aberdeen. These things can be likely to send you off, but the better shape you’re in, the better you can roll with the punches.
How can mindfulness help?
I think it’s helping quite a bit. There’s a school in Boston which has mindfulness for 15 minutes in the classroom in the middle of the morning and once again in the afternoon. It’s very good and can be a good part of your daily routine, but it is important to remember it’s not a fix-all solution.
What advice would you give to a young person experiencing difficulties?
It’s good to see a doctor, and it’s helpful to write things down before your appointment. There’s lots of good websites: Mind, SANE, Depression Alliance and the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, which has a dedicated student switchboard. The Samaritans are well trained and very good. Talking to someone you can trust is very important, too. Ultimately, it’s about building your own routine and using a toolkit that’s going to make you feel better.
Find more information about Jeremy at his website.