Schools must teach kids to be happy not just how to pass exams, urges Who Cares Wins award winner Ben West


IMAGINE for a moment that more than 200 British children died every year because they did not wear seatbelts.

This would be an enormous crisis. There would be a big awareness campaign, posters in schools and a fortune spent on preventing those deaths.

Oliver Dixon – The Sun

Ben lost his brother Sam, 15, to suicide in January 2018. He has campaigned since to raise awareness of the importance of opening up about mental health[/caption]

But that is the figure for the number of school-aged children who die from suicide each year.

In 2017 there were 226. That’s more than four a week. It’s absolutely horrifying.

This week The Health Foundation charity spoke out to demand schools focus more on teaching kids to be happy rather than just passing exams.

There should be a greater focus on the arts, it insisted, because too big a focus on academic success is harming children’s mental health.

Schools need to do all they can to tackle mental health problems, and giving pupils the chance to take part in art, drama and music is one way that could really help.


Many headteachers are far too focused on academic ­success but actually one of their most important jobs is to build young people into the adults they will become.

I know first-hand how important the arts are. My brother, Sam, died by suicide on January 21, 2018. I was in my bedroom when I heard my mum’s scream.

I ran in and went into autopilot, using my first aid ­training to try to resuscitate Sam. Tragically, he couldn’t be saved.

He had been diagnosed with clinical depression in September 2017 but told very few people as he felt he would be treated ­differently and would be laughed at.

Sam was hugely interested in art and music, and I know he found a lot of comfort from them. It’s about expressing your emotions in a different way.

Too often, schools are “exam factories”, and the stress that goes with achieving academic success can be tough.


If you have somewhere to paint or draw, or pick up an instrument and do something enjoyable without any pressure, it can hugely benefit a person’s wellbeing. It’s a form of therapy.

I do appreciate that these subjects may be the first to be cut when school budgets are tight. After all, they are not core subjects. But it’s vital that we look at education as more than just maths, science and English GCSEs.

Just this week, Andrew Lloyd Webber said cutting school arts and music budgets is “the stupidest thing that could have ever happened”.

He talked about a struggling school in North London which has been transformed, simply by giving each pupil a violin and music lessons.

It has gone from being in special measures to having its first pupil land a scholarship to Oxford.

I’m not at all surprised by this. The real benefit, though, is allowing pupils to find a ­passion and something they enjoy, just for the sake of it.

Dan Charity – The Sun

Ben delivering his petition to the PM Boris Johnson in Downing Street[/caption]

Paul Edwards – The Sun

Ben accepting The Sun Who Cares Wins Award from Matt Hancock[/caption]

Ben West Instagram

Ben was introduced to Boris Johnson at the The Sun’s Who Cares Wins health awards[/caption]

School can play a large part in a person’s mental health.

It is where children spend most of their time and where they develop into adulthood.

But following my brother’s death, I was shocked to learn that teachers are not given any mandatory instruction during their teacher training on how to spot and tackle mental health problems.

So I started a petition, and that has now reached nearly 300,000 signatures.

Thanks to The Sun, I was introduced to Boris Johnson at the paper’s Who Cares Wins health awards, then last week, on World Mental Health Day, the Prime Minister personally received my petition in ­Downing Street.


The PM wants to see a change in how we approach mental health. No one is born stigmatising people on the grounds of race or gender or because they have difficulties with their mental health.

If we can learn to stigmatise, then we can learn to be accepting. We can give children the tools to be able to talk about their mental health, right from a young age, and that will equip them for the rest of their lives.

As well as providing a happy environment, teachers should be taught how to spot when someone is struggling and ­differentiate from what is ­normal, such as exam nerves.

Then they need to know how to approach that pupil and where to direct them to get help.


Teachers have a hugely difficult job. They are underpaid and overworked.

But they have a duty of care, and most teachers I have ­spoken to have been hugely supportive of this idea as one measure in the fight against mental health problems. Mental health awareness training has also been found to improve the wellbeing of staff, as well as students.

This is important because looking after the health of our teachers is vital.

A friend told me that when the pupils at Sam’s school were told about his death, it was like a bomb going off.

His death did not just affect our family and friends, but everyone at his school and the wider community.

Multiply that by all the number of ­people affected by suicide in the UK and you are looking at a problem of epic proportions.

But just like putting our seatbelts on, there are ­measures we can adopt to reduce the damage.

  • Ben West, 19, is the winner of The Sun’s 2019 Who Cares Wins Mental Health Hero award. To find out more about Ben’s campaign, find him on Instagram at @iambenwest.


More than 200 British school children die every year from suicide (posed by models)[/caption]

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