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Ben Greer

The odd couple and the World’s Largest Mental Health Lesson

24 March 2017 | by Ben Greer

Please welcome Ben Greer of the NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, who here provides some intriguing insight into the recent attempt by Professor Dame Til Wykes and poet Hussain Manawer to set a new record for the World's Largest Mental Health Lesson.

We know many things about mental health problems but one area that has been neglected through lack of investment and some lack of expertise is mental health problems in childhood and adolescence. We know only a little on what treatments work best, how to tailor treatments to each development level and what key attributes are likely to predict recovery. We do not even know at a micro level how to equate different recovery outcomes given that these will mean different things at different ages. But we do know that three quarters of mental health problems in adults have their beginnings during childhood and adolescence.

We also know that one in ten 5-16 year olds in the UK live with a diagnosable mental health problem, and the true figure may be higher. So in a class of 30 children there is a risk of at least three children suffering from mental health problems, and head teachers report that this is becoming a crisis. Psychologists have pointed out these problems, and a recent European study highlighted the area of developmental mental health as a key investment issue for research funders. The response so far from politicians has been some recognition, and the priorities were included in the Five Year Forward View for mental health services and accepted by the government.

But alongside organisations like Young Minds, Heads Together and MQ there is a certain odd couple - Professor Dame Til Wykes (Vice Dean Psychology and Systems Sciences, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London) and Hussain Manawer (poet and astronaut-in-training) – who are also working to raise awareness and increase our understanding, with a partnership aimed at combatting stigma and promoting discussion among young people about the importance of mental health.The World's Largest Mental Health Lesson

Their most recent effort occurred on Tuesday 21st March 2017, when pupils and teachers across greater London (along with a few celebrity guests) descended on Hackney Empire to attempt to set the GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS title for the Largest Mental Health Lesson. 

The lesson focussed on common mental health problems, strategies to maintain good mental health, and sources of support, and audience participation was an integral part of the event.

Monitored by the ever-watchful independent stewards and our GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS adjudicator, Pravin Patel, everybody in the lesson had to remain engaged for its duration for the record to be valid. So if you looked at a mobile phone or chatted with your neighbour you were struck off the list of attendees, and wouldn’t be counted towards the final tally.

After a tense wait, the total number of participants was announced as 538, more than enough to officially secure the record, and the crowd went wild!

This was a great result for the organisers, who had managed to keep hundreds of children off their phones and engaged – a major feat in itself – and the buzz since the lesson has shown the importance of raising mental health awareness in both students and teachers, and promoting a continuing conversation between the two.

Til and Hussain would like to make it clear they couldn’t have done this without the help of people who gave their time for free – especially the celebrities who helped to raise the profile of the event – and reserve particular praise for the team at Hackney Empire, who provided the fantastic venue free of charge, and for Maya Jama for fitting the event into her busy schedule.  

Whilst the record itself was an amazing achievement in its own right, Professor Wykes is keen to reiterate the motivation behind it:

We want to empower and educate young people to know how to manage their mental health and what to do if they are worried about it.  Just as importantly we want to raise awareness and so help to reduce stigma and enable young people to provide support to others. It is often the stigma and discrimination which prevents young people getting treatment early and we know that the earlier you get treatment the faster is recovery.”

Building on the clear excitement and sense of achievement following the lesson, all students were invited to lend their views and ideas in an online research priority setting survey.

This survey, which is currently active and has been disseminated to over 80 schools across Greater London, will enable young people themselves to tell us and other researchers what they feel are the priorities in young people’s mental health research. This priority setting exercise will then help to inform and direct future research in the field of young people’s mental health at King’s College London and elsewhere.

However this is only the beginning, as Til and Hussain are now challenging schools across the UK to come together to try to beat the record – after all, the more conversations we can generate the better.

Further Reading

  • Children’s Society. (2008). The Good Childhood Inquiry: health research evidence. London: Children’s Society.
  • Clement, S., Schauman, O., Graham, T., Maggioni, F., Evans-Lacko, S., Bezborodovs, N., ... & Thornicroft, G. (2015). What is the impact of mental health-related stigma on help-seeking? A systematic review of quantitative and qualitative studies. Psychological medicine45(01), 11-27.
  • NHS England, Care Quality Commission, Health Education England, Monitor, Public Health England, Trust Development Authority (2014). NHS five year forward view. London: NHS England. Available at: www.england.nhs.uk/ourwork/futurenhs/
  • Pinfold, V., Toulmin, H., Thornicroft, G., Huxley, P., Farmer, P., & Graham, T. (2003). Reducing psychiatric stigma and discrimination: evaluation of educational interventions in UK secondary schools. The British Journal of Psychiatry182(4), 342-346.
  • Sholl, C., Korkie, J., Harper, D. (2010). Challenging teenagers ideas about mental health. The Psychologist, 23(1), 26-27.
  • Wykes, T., Haro, J. M., Belli, S. R., Obradors-Tarragó, C., Arango, C., Ayuso-Mateos, J. L., ... & Elfeddali, I. (2015). Mental health research priorities for Europe. The Lancet Psychiatry2(11), 1036-1042.


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