The way forward: change the narrative from mental health deficits to building character and resilience

Adam Seldon
3 min readMar 31, 2024


Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

The psychologist Marty Seligman, following a conversation with his daughter, had an epiphany. Why does the field of psychology obsess about human weaknesses and mental health problems? As president of the American Psychological Association, he sought to shift psychology’s focus to human strengths and work out how to nurture human flourishing.

The education system could learn something from Seligman’s approach. Teenagers undoubtedly face mental health problems. Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist, argues the research establishes that the hours teenagers spend on social media is not just a correlate but a cause of anxiety and depression. One-third of children missed 10% of school time last academic year, which mental health was one cause of.

However, the dominant approach in schools to this problem is to protect students, to stop them ever feeling negative emotions, or to lower our expectations about what is possible. This might mean not exposing them to topics or situations that are challenging; giving them an opt out if they are finding things hard or are in an emotionally vulnerable state, or adjusting how they learn. A striking trend in relation to need is the growth in special education needs (SEN) diagnosis: there is double the number of pupils with SEN diagnosis compared to 2015.

Though supposedly sympathetic, the dominant approach fails students. Mental health expert Lucy Foulkes argues that if we give kids labels, such as anxiety, or give them adjustments, they can see this as something permanent. Instead, the better solution is to help the student overcome a barrier, “gradually and kindly, step by step.” Alison Ripley in The Smartest Kids in the World highlights how in Finland the special needs label is to acknowledge temporary learning difficulties, rather than something permanent. I worry that in the UK, often this is not the case. If we give students an opt out, they will take it. If we confer permanent labels, it generates a static narrative about student potential and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where lower expectations leads to lower performance.

In schools, narratives about deficits should be outweighed by capacity and growth building, using the principles and strategies of character education: intentionally through the curriculum, extracurricular and everyday experiences developing the character of young people. Resilience can be developed in the relatively safer environment of an education setting.

Recent teaching highlights include when I tried this approach. In the classroom this included giving students high levels of independence in lessons for challenging tasks rather than helping right away, or teaching a new topic on the Arab-Israeli conflict despite this being a challenge for some students to engage with. Rigor breeds progress. A student I observed in a lesson who previously did no work was on task throughout. The teaching assistant attributed this to the student developing his independence with adults deliberately not helping straight way.

In the wider school, character building looked like encouraging students to speak or perform in assembly and helping them overcome nerves, or supporting older students to confront self-doubt to be on duty spots on the corridor.

Nurturing this resilience, or grit, as psychologist Angela Duckworth calls it, is central to achievement in a range of domains, from academics to work to sport, according to Duckworth. The much-mentioned public school self-confidence which contributes to the stranglehold that a select number of schools have on top jobs is partly due to the self-belief developed by the wider character education offering (even if it’s not labelled that), which extracurricular is a part. Duckworth says if she could wave a magic wand, she’d have all children engage in high quality extracurricular over a prolonged period.

There is a danger students from disadvantaged backgrounds face what a UCL report on resilience calls the ‘double burden’: those who face the most adversity are less likely to have experiences to cultivate resilience.

Schools can and should reframe how best to strengthen the mental health of students. With intentional planning to develop character, and communication to students about the deep strength they all have within them, students will be more equipped to face the inevitable challenges of youth and adulthood.