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Grow up, being a little sad is not a sign of mental illness

25 March 2017, 8:37:52

Online Desk:Sometimes life can be a bit tough and you just have to put up with it. That’s a lesson schools should be passing on, alongside the basics such as the 3Rs.

In fact, learning the value of stoicism, resolve and perseverance is more useful than how to do a quadratic equation or understanding the nitrogen cycle.

So I laud the teacher at Norton Knatchbull School in Ashford, Kent, for dispensing this week some of the best life advice I’ve heard in a while.

In response to an increase in absences, the teacher emailed the pupils telling them they needed to ‘suck it up’, and that ‘feeling slightly faint, headaches, tummy aches and feeling slightly low’ were not reasonable excuses for missing school.


This was met with the usual squeals from precious parents and sensitive students about being ‘offended’ and that it undermined students who suffered from depression or anxiety. Rubbish!


Feeling sad, down, miserable, fed up or otherwise unhappy is not a mental illness.


It’s part of the normal experience of being human — and the sooner students learn that life doesn’t always go their way and that this might make them feel sad, the better.


One of the problems in modern life is that we increasingly have an expectation that everything will be rosy and go how we want it to.

It won’t. Understanding and accepting this is the path to a more relaxed, stress-free and ultimately happier life. And besides, no one would interpret the email as saying that those with a mental illness need to ‘suck it up’.


We know exactly the kind of pupils it’s targeting because we’ve all come across them as adults — the neurotic and self-obsessed who are convinced the world revolves around them. And actually, even in depression, there’s very good evidence that the best thing is not to take time off, but to press on, even though this might be difficult.


We know that in cases of mild to moderate depression, people do better when they continue at work, which provides distraction, focus and routine.


Sitting at home alone is the last thing a depressed person needs. This is why doctors and psychologists now encourage those with depression to return to work as soon as possible.


Of course, there are cases of severe depression where work (or school) wouldn’t be appropriate.

I’m not advocating the ‘pull your socks up’ attitude that underpins so much of the stigma attached to mental illness. But there is merit in encouraging those who are struggling to keep going, and that this might contribute to their recovery.


It reminds me of when I was at medical school. My friend, Ruby, was convinced she and her boyfriend of four years would marry. He was less convinced, and just as we were starting a hospital attachment, he dumped her.


Ruby was devastated and took to her bed. Wallowing in self?pity, she refused to go into medical school.


After a few days, our old wily professor of medicine asked where she was and, when I explained, he asked me to send her to him.


She went to see him, clutching a box of tissues, and said she wanted a few weeks off because she couldn’t cope with coming in. He looked at her kindly. ‘Nonsense’ he replied, to her horror and dismay. ‘The best thing for you is to come in. I’ll expect to see you tomorrow morning.’


She protested, but he wouldn’t hear another word. He then re-did her timetable so it included double shifts and 7.30am starts — far more than anyone else.


She was furious, denouncing him as heartless and uncaring. But over the coming few days she soon found she didn’t have much time to be sad and started to feel better far quicker than if she’d been at home moping about.


The professor kept an eye on her, insisting she saw him once a week to see how she was doing. After the placement, she sat her exams and came top of the year.


Both Ruby and I realised that he had been entirely right.


Far from being cruel, sometimes the best thing someone can do is to tell you have to just suck things up and keep going.

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