Philip Hammond’s budget announcement in late October about a £2bn real-term increase in mental health funding will surely be welcomed by the education sector. There has been an alarming increase in mental health issues among the young, with researchers finding the proportion of children and young people reporting they have a mental health condition has grown six times in England in just two decades.
In 1995, 0.8% of 4-24 year olds in England reported a long standing mental health condition. By 2014 this has increased to 4.8%, according to the study conducted by University College London, Imperial College London, University of Exeter and the Nuffield Trust academics, published in the journal Psychological Medicine. The study also found an increase in records of mental health conditions between 2008 and 2014 of 60% in England, and 75% in Scotland.
Other reports have been just as damning. UK charity Action for Children surveyed 5,555 people aged between 13 and 15 from across the country and 1,840 – 1 in 3 – were found to have a mental health issue such as depression or inability to focus. And an Education Policy Institute investigation found that referrals to children’s mental health services in England had increased by 26% over the past five years.
There is evidence to suggest a factor in this rise could be the trend towards increased screen time among young people. A government report into children’s well-being found that ‘time spent playing video games was significantly and negatively associated with young people’s well-being’.
It went on to say that: ‘Children who spend more time on computers, watching TV and playing video games tend to experience higher levels of emotional distress, anxiety and depression’ and that, ‘The evidence suggests… each additional hour of viewing increases children’s likelihood of experiencing socio-emotional problems and the risk of lower self-esteem’.
The Mental Health Foundation recommend a number of ways to help keep children and young people mentally well, including ‘being in good physical health, eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise’, ‘having time and freedom to play, indoors and outdoors’, and ‘going to a school that looks after the well-being of all its pupils’.
I’d be keen to add to that the importance of spending time in nature. Gardening is one method that is repeatedly shown to provide substantial mental and physical benefits, with reductions in depression, anxiety and stress, as well as a lowering of blood pressure, all linked to regular work in the garden.
Gardening gives us a sense of responsibility and thus a sense of purpose and worth. It connects us to nature, allowing us to feel at one with our surroundings. It is also great exercise and thus releases serotonin and dopamine, both of which make us feel good. And it helps people live mindfully, in the present moment, focused on the task at hand instead of allowing thoughts to wander into potentially unpleasant corners of the mind.
There are even antidepressant microbes found in soil: mycobacterium vaccae has been found to mirror the effects on neurons that antidepressant drugs provide, and there is evidence to suggest the bacteria stimulates serotonin production.
So my suggestion is that schools should look at gardening as a way to mitigate the increase in mental health issues among schoolchildren. The benefits to the mind are clear. It would also benefit the body, with food growing likely to contribute to increased fruit and vegetables in the diet.
Gardening at school doesn’t have to be an extracurricular activity either. It can be fully incorporated into the curriculum and used as a stimulating way to teach numerous different subjects. Learning outside benefits the children and also helps provide the teacher with a creativity that the classroom environment sometimes stifles.
If you don’t have the space or the know-how, you can start small: a few planters, some seeds, soil, water and sunlight will see you growing some crops. And your ambitions and knowledge can grow with them.
If you are keen to discuss possibilities of creating an Edible Playground growing space at a school, contact the author at email@example.com. If you are already growing some crops – no matter what scale – at your school, think about entering the Edible Playground Grow On, Film It film competition. Gardening related prizes will be available for 1st, 2nd and 3rd places.
- Mental health and well-being trends among children and young people in the UK, 1995–2014: analysis of repeated cross-sectional national health surveys
- One in three young people have mental health troubles, survey finds
- Access to children and young people’s mental health services – 2018
- How healthy behaviour supports children’s’ well-being
About the Author
Mike Edmondstone is the Schools Communications Officer for the Edible Playgrounds programme from charity Trees for Cities. Based in London’s Kennington Park, he promotes Edible Playgrounds to schools and coordinates enquiries at a national, regional and local level.
The Edible Playgrounds programme transforms school grounds into vibrant outdoor teaching gardens that inspire learning and get children excited about growing and eating healthy food. It is now in its ninth year and has to date completed projects in more than 80 primary and secondary schools across the country.
Thanks to Trees for Cities’ corporate partners Bulb, there is currently generous funding available to cover the majority of the programme cost. Get in touch via the website, email, Twitter, or phone 020 7587 1320.