Mental Health Week: Why we should not fear failure

This mental health week Nadia Mendoza of the Self-Esteem Team explains how failure can be the greatest teacher and acceptance and understanding of it can help tackle the issue of poor mental health in schools 

Nadia Mendoza
Monday 16 May 2016 19:40 BST

“I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

These are the words executed by now-retired professional basketball player Michael Jordan back in 2006.

He was alluding to his casualties on the court, prefacing that now infamous quote with: “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed.”

I, too, have failed.

From not being picked for the school play to being in the bottom sets for Maths and English. From receiving multiple “we'll keep your CV on file” rejection letters to later utterings of “I've been made redundant”; and from falling victim to bullying to being stranded jobless in a foreign country.

These, at the time, were huge failures that savagely disturbed my mental wellbeing. Through my eyes, they were synonyms for being thick, flawed, dispensable, unpopular and cursed by misfortune. This embedded sense of self-doubt became part of my core outlook, escalating into a two-decade long war with self-harm and anxiety.

Other than perhaps Olympic athletes, from the moment we are born, we are taught how to succeed. But never how to fail.

Our first steps, words, smile are applauded; our stickmen doodles in nursery celebrated; primary school successes litter parents’ mantelpieces; while secondary education is a series of mocks, GCSEs and A levels that are rewarded with praise or even materials.

We live in a visual, fiercely competitive world, constantly comparing ourselves to others, often meaning that the glory of the medal or qualification is valued over the journey of how we got there.

We laud academic achievement over character and teach students to fear failure, subsequently culling their natural curiosity and love of learning by grimly suppressing the art of trying because, well, who wants to fail? We take less risk if the consequence is the f word.

That is why for Mental Health Week 2016, The Self-Esteem Team (SET) – the group I work with who travel the country going into schools to teach students (as well as teachers and parents) about mental health, self-esteem and exam stress – are bringing failure to the forefront, to ask what it means, and to kick-start a discussion about how we can grow from it.

The difficulty is, we live in a society where critical thinking is actively discouraged, failures are whispered not debated, perpetuating the shame and disgrace of them, isolating people in their downfalls despite the fact we, as humans, all hit stumbling blocks that challenge us daily.

Just this month, my SET co-founder Natasha Devon was axed from her role as Mental Health Champion – I believe due to the fact she questioned the failures of the Department for Education and Tory party.

Speaking at a conference in April on what constitutes good mental health in schools, she raised the correlation between a culture of rigorous testing and the fact that anxiety is now the fastest-growing illness in under-21s, stating that the two were no coincidence.

She also voiced our organisation's fundamental belief, that the crisis in young people today could be prevented if we master the right approach.

This inquisition into our country's failings prompted a rather suspiciously-timed sacking, as opposed to the united 'how can we tackle it' partnership we had hoped for. The face of critical thinking silenced.

As a nation, we are not championed to question the world around us. As a result, finance, politics, and economics are not core subjects on the curriculum despite the definition of education being “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life”.

If students remain passive in their critical thinking on, for example, manifestos, austerity, or banking, it will stall young roars from protesting or putting a cross on that ballot paper. All of which keeps the 65+ age bracket the largest turnout of voters at elections.

Once again, no coincidence.

This oppressed attitude on critical thinking as a discipline translates not only to education but also to mental health.

In some parts of the UK, the four most common mental health issue – depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders – have collectively risen by 600%.

In an average classroom, six children have self-harmed in the last 12 months, while hospital admissions for eating disorders and self-harm have doubled over the last three years, and half of teachers have sought medical assistance for stress-related conditions in the past 12 months.

Meanwhile, seven children in an average classroom are likely to have been bullied, with teen bullying doubling the risk of adult suicide, and suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.

And last year, Childline received a 200 per cent increase in young people calling to request exam stress counseling.

Do I believe critical thinking alone can solve the mental health crisis? No. Do I believe addressing failure can help prevent the crisis worsening? Yes.

The crux of the matter is, failure doesn't care if you succeed, its job is to simply highlight the steps you need to change next time. The irony is, teachers tell us not to fail, yet failure is life's greatest teacher.

In hindsight, I can see my failings have made me tougher, wiser, more intuitive, though in the storm of them, I felt detached and futureless.

In the words of J.K. Rowling: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”

If we start to think critically and question our failures, we might just fast-track ourselves to success.

This is exactly what Tash, our third SET member Grace Barrett and I are attempting to do. Last year, we began our #letters2dave campaign, which involved sending a letter to David Cameron every single day until he agreed to meet us to discuss the importance of mental wellbeing and why it should be included on the curriculum. We vowed to continue the paper trail, even if we got a no, until we got a yes. When we hit letter 60, we received a decline, so continued on our mission posting the envelopes.

By letter 76, we re-evaluated our/his failings and decided to halt the campaign, to try an alternative tactic. We have now taken matters into our own hands and created a mental wellbeing programme currently being trialed in our pioneer schools this summer term. The Get SET initiative – approved by our four resident experts (including a neuroscientist and a psychologist with 30 years experience in the NHS) – challenges critical thinking, failure, and the kind of education a text book cannot teach you. Working alongside University College London, who is conducting our research, we are collecting data in a bid to roll out the best possible toolkit of resources to all schools across the UK.

Should that data come back unfavorably, we will assess how to tweak the exercises. Failure, by its very nature, gives us the perspective we need to succeed. The only real failure would be if we give up. And, thinking critically, our future generations are too important to do that.

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