March 6, 2015

How is it that after 13 years of education, most young people graduate knowing more about geography and maths than they do about health, happiness and navigating the challenges of life?

First Published:, 06-March-2015

Nobody is suggesting that facts, figures and Italian mountain ranges aren't important but it's time to get real about the true priorities.

It's no secret that Ireland has an abundance of mental health issues that need attention. The statistics around anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, alcohol abuse, addiction, violence and suicide all point to cries for help.

Figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) tell us that suicide levels are at an all-time high, with over 500 people taking their own lives each year. The vast majority (83pc) of these deaths are male, which highlights the urgent need for a focus on men in particular.

Overall, it's clear that all is not well in the hearts and minds of the Irish nation.

A dysfunctional economy is no doubt playing a role in this, as is a political system that is looking more and more Victorian by the day. Permeating all of this is an ideology that promotes consumerism over citizenship, and emphasises the needs of the market over the needs of the people.

Science and technology have brought many great material advances to this country and so many of its people, but in some ways it has left many people more lonely, disconnected and living in despair.

The Dalai Lama sums this up in his poem 'The Paradox of Our Age' which includes these lines: "We have bigger houses, but smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees, but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, but more problems, more medicines, but less wellness."

There's no doubt that these are testing times.

The threats posed by so many global issues – war and terrorism, climate change, and economic meltdowns and austerity – feed an anxiety that is reflected in our media and our politics.

Young people pick up on this and need to be supported through it all. They need guidance and direction from elders and mentors. They also need opportunities and spaces to express their feelings and their fears, as well as their hopes and dreams.

That is why education can play such a leading role in this. That's not to take away from the role of parents and the wider community, but it is at school where young minds are nurtured for over 30 hours per week.

English, Irish, maths, history, they're all important, but none of them will matter much if the student graduates without a sense of who they are, what their unique gifts are, and how they can withstand the inevitable storms that will come their way.

Similarly, how is a student to focus on learning if, as research suggests, up to 20pc of them are in crisis at any one time?

Employers have an interest in this too. A head full of facts can only get you so far in the modern world. Increasingly, they are looking for staff who aren't just technically competent, but are well rounded, good communicators, and confident in themselves.

The same is true in sports, where there is a growing trend to take a 'whole player' approach, where managers want players who are healthy in mind, body and soul.

The current hit-and-miss approach to well-being in schools throughout the country needs to change. The implementation of the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) programme is patchy and inconsistent.

In the year 2015, a high percentage of students will still not receive any sex and relationships education beyond what they might learn from friends, or as is increasingly the case, from the hardcore pornography so easily accessed via the internet.

We know too that bullying is rife in our schools, particularly homophobic bullying, and that for the most part mental health is only touched on as a non-essential part of a crowded curriculum.

It's time to change that. The 1916 proclamation imagined not just prosperity for all people, but also their happiness.

It is time to honour this vision, and to start walking the walk when it comes to mental health, suicide prevention and creating a healthy Ireland.

Proposals for a new Junior Cycle well-being module are a step in the right direction but we need to go the full distance.

It's time now to heed the calls of campaigners like Niall Breslin (Bressie) and start to embed mental health and well-being into the education system as a core priority.

What's needed is a visionary, mandatory life skills curriculum from national school right up to the Leaving Cert.

Third-level institutions can also play a role. This effort needs to be well resourced, supported by skilled educators and suitable partner agencies, and it must provide genuine spaces for young people to be heard, seen and supported.

The cutbacks to guidance counsellors need to be reversed and we need psychologists and other supports available to anyone who might be in distress.

Mindfulness and meditation can play a big role, as can using guest speakers, online supports, creative expression, physical fitness and re-connecting with the natural world.

Teachers, who are already working under difficult conditions, need support in all of this too.

We know what needs to be done. Now who among us has the courage to stand up and help make it happen?

Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, founder of, and member of the Council of State. He is a voluntary board member of Uplift, Gaisce – The President's Award, and the Soar Foundation

Irish Independent