Skip navigation
25th Apr 2017 4:49pm Blogs

Active citizenship is good for your mental health

Psychology and Citizenship.

Blog – Kevin Walker

Kevin Walker is principal examiner for Global Citizenship at A level and a member of ACT council. He is also a doctoral student at the University of Plymouth reflecting on the role of educators in developing active citizenship.

It was my frustration as a Psychology teacher that led me into teaching Citizenship. Psychology, fascinating as it is, tends to focus attention inward, to look at mental events as if occurring within an individual mind. I created opportunities for my Psychology students to become more involved in the community beyond the school, by working with adults with learning difficulties; with mental health charities and youth groups. It was some time before I recognised this as a form of active citizenship.

Peer listening was one such initiative in school where sixth formers were trained by school counsellors to provide activities for younger students; befriending and identifying the more vulnerable among them. Often it was the more vulnerable sixth formers who volunteered, they benefited as much, if not more, than those they aimed to be helping. Suggesting to a tearful Y7 that a friend’s betrayal, however momentous at the time, was something that they too had experienced and got over, often led to a similar insight into their own response to their exam results.

Depression is characterised by passivity, by a withdrawal from the world and by feelings of helplessness. It has long been realised that engagement with others, activities, and a belief in the possibility of change is therapeutic, indeed it is central to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Psychological research suggests that a sense of control over one’s life is not only less anxiety provoking, but is also associated with resilience in the face of pressure to conform and obey without question. Actions taken by and owned by students are not only good for the wider community but also good for the individual student.

Active citizenship requires informed and thoughtful action in the world, that not only offers the hope of bringing about a more mentally healthy environment but taking action itself changes the mind involved in the action. By attending to and acting in the world around us there is the promise of changing it and ourselves in a therapeutic process. That process is also a political one.

The distinction between Citizenship as a school subject and PHSE is important because the political aspect is less likely to be lost in the personal. In the field of mental health in schools there is much to be gained if the subject specialists can work together, provided that their different perspectives are respected.  Perhaps this is made easier as in practise they are often the same person.

What irritates me about the current recognition that teenage mental health is a big issue, is not so much the shifting of responsibility onto schools to address it but the failure to acknowledge the relationship between students’ mental health and the pressures put on pupils to perform. The continuous assessment of individual achievement, competition between and constant comparison with peers will all increase anxiety. Rather than protect our children from some of the cruel anxieties of our adult world policy makers seem to be intent on forcing these on them at an ever earlier age.

It rather goes without saying that those performance pressures affecting students also apply to their teachers too. It follows that active citizenship could be good for teachers’ mental health as well, if they can find opportunities to take control and exercise agency in their professional lives, and, yes, I do recognise how challenging that is. I have recently retired from secondary teaching, in part because I needed to find a space in which I can take control and think about what I was doing. This blog is part of that process.