Physical literacy and mental health

Physical literacy and mental health

We will have a merry Xmas, declares today’s Daily Express front-page headline defiantly. “Britons are determined to splash what’s left of their cash to make the most of Christmas”, it says, as if a mad spending spree is the answer to all our current woes. The reality is that good cheer is – like so much else – in short supply this year. Christmas will be a real struggle for many, as the cost-of-living crisis grips ever tighter. Meanwhile, the NHS is under unprecedented strain and one key public service after another is crippled by industrial action. Away from the headlines, huge numbers of us – including children and young people – are suffering, often alone and unsupported, with mental health problems. According to the homepage of the mental health charity Mind, it can take up to four years for a sufferer to receive treatment.

It doesn’t feel like hyperbole to use words like ‘crisis’ and ‘meltdown’ in the context of children’s mental health in particular. Last month an NHS Digital report found that one in four 17- to 19-year-olds had a probable mental disorder in 2022. Separate NHS figures indicated that the number of under-18s in contact with NHS mental health services in England rose by nearly 30% last year – to nearly one million. Earlier this year, GPs warned that mental health services for children and young people were critically failing and that young people who are anxious, depressed, or self-harming are now “routinely being denied help”. The charity Mind said that the government will be “failing an entire generation” if it doesn’t prioritise investment in young people’s mental-health services.

There are many drivers of mental ill-health, of course, and no quick fixes. We need to address acute and immediate problems but also put in place a long-term strategy to promote wellbeing. We also need to be proactive as well as reactive. Sport England said recently that “supporting children and young people to be active and play sport has never been more important.”

Participation in sport and physical activity helps with mental health and wellbeing. For example:

  • It improves self-esteem and happiness levels
  • It reduces stress, anxiety and depression
  • It brings people together, builds trust and helps tackle feelings of isolation

Sport England’s latest survey of children and young people’s activity levels, which we wrote about here, indicates that active children and young people are more likely to be happy and less likely to feel lonely than those who are less active. One particularly encouraging finding is that more young people appear to be choosing to get active specifically to support their mental wellbeing.

However, the survey also suggests that levels of physical literacy among children and young people – measured by their attitudes to sport and physical activity – have yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Another alarming finding is that children and young people from the least affluent families have lower happiness levels than those from the most affluent families – and the gap is widening.

Life-Based Learning and mental health

Life-Based Learning (LBL) aims to prepare children and young people for the challenges of modern life. One of the most important challenges is the ability to manage our mental health. LBL offers an approach to looking after our children and young people that not only addresses acute and immediate problems but also puts in place a bold strategy to promote future wellbeing.

LBL advocates teaching children from an early age about their emotions and how to manage them, much improving their chances of growing up happy, comfortable in themselves and emotionally resilient. They also need to have free and regular access to activities that promote good mental health. Making physical activity fun for young people, offering them plenty of choice and involving them in the design and delivery of physical activity programmes – for example, by making them a part of curriculum decision-making processes in schools – will all help promote physical literacy and mental wellbeing.

Our blogs regularly highlight the benefits to children’s mental health and wellbeing of regular physical exercise, outdoor and nature-based experiences and participation in activities that involve them in positive change.

Image at the head of this article by Hulki Okan Tabak from Pixabay.

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