British private schools are known around the world for a first-class education. Everyone has heard of Eton and Harrow.
But now the principals of top schools in the UK have raised a flag of alarm over the terrifying rates of mental health problems they are seeing among their pupils. Nearly nine out of ten schools just surveyed say they are worried by the huge increase in self-harm, eating disorders and depression, while almost all schools say sexting and cyberbullying are big and growing problems.
Something is obviously going badly wrong for young people, even among some of the most privileged students in the world, and schools are scrambling to put programs in place to help them. But could these programs actually be making things worse?
Because what they inevitably emphasize is 'stress'. Students, they say, are stressed by the pressure to achieve, stressed about looking good, stressed about being popular. Family relationships are stressful. Tests and exams are stressful. Social media is stressful. And then they focus on telling students it's hard to manage a stress-load like this, but they will try and help them.
But maybe, instead of automatically assuming that the stresses on young people are much greater than in the past, we should be asking why today's pupils are increasingly unable to cope with the ups and downs of life? Could it be that by talking about stress so much, we are setting up the expectation among them that they will be stressed? And could it also be that children often don't have the physical good health they need to handle the mental stresses that come their way?
I know from the research I've done for my parenting books, that that diet, sleep and exercise have a fundamental impact on the mind and the emotions.Brain and body are, after all, the same thing. I know from my visits to schools that many young people aren't in good shape at all, and we all know from experience that poor eating turns you sluggish, alcohol lowers the spirits, lack of sleep makes problems seem insurmountable, and days of sitting about make you feel hopeless and depressed.
Of course we need to help young people handle mental and emotional stress, but before we do this, let's simply get them eating, exercising and sleeping better. A number of British elementary schools have just started making pupils run or walk a mile every day. This simple intervention may do more for children's mental health than any amount of stress-busting classroom programs.
Hilary Wilce is an education writer, coach and tutor. Her two e-books 'Backbone: how to build the character your child needs to succeed' and 'The Six Secrets of School Success' are available on Amazon