High school is not only about academics and sports – it’s also about preparing young men to be emotionally mature to face the world, writes Paul Viljoen, headmaster at Northwood School.
Growing up in the 80s, I very seldom heard the terms psychologist, depression, anxiety, fear or any other narratives relating to mental challenges or well-being. And if you experienced any of the above, you would simply keep quiet. It was drilled into us as young adolescents that to show emotion – or heaven forbid cry – was the epitome of weakness, and was an indication that you lacked a strong and brave character.
Many boys – though certainly not all – still have trouble talking about emotions and feelings because social norms have encouraged them to conform to a masculine ideal that emphasises values like stoicism, toughness, and competitiveness. This – along with strong cultural taboos as mentioned above – continues to place the mental well-being of boys at risk. In addition, the Covid pandemic prevented boys from interacting socially, created financial pressures within families, and led to an even greater addiction to electronic devices, gaming and social media platforms. All factors that would perpetuate any underlying mental health issues.
In our own educational space, we have seen a sharp rise in the number of boys requiring counselling and support. Many of the boys report that it took them a very long time to seek help, as they felt they would be showing weakness if they reached out for the help they so desperately required. Despite the uptick in depression among teens generally, a recent international study found that only one-third of boys aged 12 to 17 sought help for depression in the last year, compared with 45% of girls.
It has become clear to us as a school that intervention and a strong psychological support structure are needed if we are to send well-rounded and emotionally healthy young men into the world. Crucially we have taken steps to destigmatise mental health. To help boys process emotions in a productive way, our school needed to destigmatise mental health challenges generally, enabling boys to feel that it’s a little easier to talk about their feelings.
Creating an empathetic school culture can help boys learn to listen and to share and also allows them to feel safe and supported in the navigation of their high school career.
Having the necessary experts work with our boys – we employ a full-time education psychologist and a school counsellor – ensures that boys get the help they need. In fact, I am of the opinion that these individuals play as important a role in a school as the math and science teachers.
Giving boys the freedom to express their feelings, allowing them to connect with each other around sensitive topics, and positively reinforcing the strides they make, all adds to the development of a strong character, but also establishes a sensitivity for the mental battle people face. Caring and being sensitive is certainly not a sign of weakness. In fact, these are character traits we need much more of in this crazy, somewhat broken world of ours.