Schools tackle rising problems in student mental health

December 7, 2020

Sarah O'Connor

It’s all about wellbeing these days. Health is not just the absence of disease, but as the Chinese saying goes “五福临门 (wǔ fú lín mén) it includes the 5 blessings of longevity, cunning, wealth, virtue, and a natural death. There is a plethora of definitions of wellbeing, but broadly a person’s wellbeing encompasses their physical, social, financial, psychological and spiritual health.A master’s degree in social work (MSW) is a graduate-level degree that increases the knowledge of the social worker. While a master’s degree is not necessary for all types of social work, it is required if you want to apply for clinical or supervisory licensure.

Letting down our mental health

Health is important and should be taken seriously. We prepare for diseases with scheduled vaccinations from birth and maintain regular checks up with opticians, doctors and dentists. Parents will instil in their children the need for a good diet, exercise and sleep. The family that eats together stays together and although we might fail, we do try to prepare meals using the healthy idea of the food pyramid. Embedding Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into our lives we learn what is required to function at our best. Yet with all this education and knowledge, we have only recently started to unpack the concept of mental health. For too long, we have shied away from people with mental health issues. Beggars on the streets were seen to be ‘other’ and the homeless as ‘dirty’ and shunned by society. The invisibility of mental health meant that sufferers who appeared ‘normal’ were subjected to a disbelief and told to ‘get over themselves’ or ‘deal with it’, further damaging an already fragile person. Mothers with postpartum depression were taught how to be mothers and expected to fit into the role rather than receive the permission from their peers to change the parameters of the role.

Mental health has often fallen short of positive attention, empathy and understanding. Historically, mental health issues stigmatized a person. Yet, there is a tangible change taking place. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Mental health is being talked with an openness that has evoked dialogue between people allowing, those once rejected, a way out into the open where there is support, empathy and understanding.

Educators need to be fully informed of the signs to look out for regarding mental health, and the strategies to monitor and support individuals.

Mental health in school curricula

As with all education, the need to educate the young about mental health is paramount. Schools have a responsibility to add this topic to the curriculum, giving it the same importance as other health issues like food technology or sex education. As teachers we follow a curriculum that equips our students with the skills needed to enable and empower their future lives. Yet, the current wellbeing of our students demands our focus. There is a scary statistic that tells us 64% of students drop out of college because of mental health problems. There is an obvious need to educate the younger generation and to guide them towards adulthood with a strong sense of self awareness, including their emotion responses to the wider world. This is in addition to building the resilience that will provide them with success to get through their adolescent years.

Sometimes it can seem that the welfare of children is more of a priority for teachers than their academic success, and there is a reason for this. A happy child learns faster, retains information more easily and has a higher chance of success. It’s a brain thing. Educators need to be fully informed of the signs to look out for regarding mental health, and the strategies to monitor and support individuals. Promoting mental health is not a new concept in education. In recent years, schools have been recruiting educational psychologists, counselors, care and welfare employees; staff responsible for the reactive response of needing to support the whole child. However, the response to the new drive for promoting mental health, has taken a more proactive approach. Mindfulness, positive education and resistance building are being incorporated into the curriculum and have a place in daily learning for the whole school community.

Scoring high on mental health education

Oftentimes, mental health is determined by both socioeconomic and environmental factors. We see mental illness associated with poverty, poor housing and low income. The resulting behaviour often leads to abuse of drugs and alcohol, violence to self and others, criminal acts, and can even result in physical health issues. Prevention of these factors thus becomes the responsibility of educators.

Schools are microcosms of society and what we teach our students, will permeate throughout the world. As educators we want to equip our students with lifelong skills and not just focus on academic qualification success. They should leave school with both qualifications and the ability to thrive and be successful members of society. When looking at mental health, we want to address the needs of those who may become susceptible, but also educate all learners in ways to take care of themselves and the people around them. Mental health educational approaches improve, for all students, emotional regulation, problem-solving skills, resilience, and enhance empathetic understanding of each other – resulting in a richer, more inclusive and diverse society. The benefits for the school include reduction in bullying and aggression, and an increase in academic success.

It would be naïve to think that we can eradicate mental health problems; the science just doesn’t support this. There are people who have all the tools and resources to be successful, yet their brain chemistry results in mental illness. This is similar to working towards a healthy lifestyle and ending up with physical ailments that are factors of both the environment and genetics. A good education goes a long way and being prepared to take care of yourself will impact both the physical and mental facets of a person.

Tried and tested approaches

Effective approaches to whole school mental health will evolve around understanding, preparation and practice. Here are a few examples of tried and tested programs that are worthy of mention.

Positive thinking stems from 1952 when Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book called “The Power of Positive Thinking.” In the sphere of education, the book was the impetus for a learning movement, thanks to the development of the notion of learned helplessness by Martin Seligman in 1967. His work moved onto looking at resilience and learned optimism, and became widely used in educational programs, with the goal to support a reduction in negative self-talk, and the promotion of happiness, strengths and wellbeing.

Positive thinking promotes the idea that failure is required to learn and build success. Positive thinkers utilize optimism; to see the glass as half full. It is about approaching challenging situations in a productive way and presenting a more authentic self. Examples of putting positive thinking into practice include changing negative self-talk — I’m never going to be able to do this— to positive self-talk —I’ll keep trying, or, maybe this will work if I try a different way. This works for people of all ages and can be easily implemented in the classroom. Instead of a child saying — I made a mistake— they can learn to reframe this as —mistakes help me to learn better. The difference is self-talk can help develop the skills needed to be mentally healthy. For more information on positive thinking, the work by American psychologist, Carol Dwerk, on growth mindsets is a valuable reading resource. Her work looks at unconscious and conscious thought and the effect it has on our daily lives, with the notion that the fixed and growth mindsets impact differently on human motivation.

For me, it was quite an insight to find that, although I was a creative with a love of learning, I was happy to work on better understanding how my humor and spirituality was used when relating with others.

Tools to enhance positive thinking in schools

The ELSA, or Emotional Literacy Support Assistant, is a person who has undergone a training course designed by educational psychologist. Once trained, and ELSA is able to work with students with a focus on social and emotional issues, and mental health awareness. This can include working on issues of bereavement, anger management, self-esteem and friendships. The idea behind the ELSA role is based on breaking down barriers to learning and feeling a part of a community.

Mindfulness is about living in the moment, encouraging awareness and acceptance. It is a great tool when it comes to working with students to engage and re-focus them. I have experienced a challenging group of students, who after following the intervention program Mind up, really improved their relationships with each other, and became more cohesive as a class, which fed through into academic success. The benefits of mindfulness programs can be to protect against anxiety and depression, and can even help with rejection.

Whole school wellbeing checks are ways to analyze the climate of wellbeing in a school. There are plenty of different resources that you can use to gauge the emotional wellbeing of the students in the school. Using the PASS assessment from GL is a nationally recognized psychometric benchmark to help staff identify the emotional issues in their students. Further, the Australian government Department of Education has shared an online resources for a school wellbeing check survey.

The Character Strengths free survey from VIA takes about 15 minutes and works for students, staff and parents alike. There are a list of 24 character strengths that when identified enable a person to better understand their own personality, and lead to a clearer understating of how we can relate to one another to optimize communication. By working together with students to build a website based on the different character strengths, we delved into our own strengths and selected the specific strengths we wanted to work on. For me, it was quite an insight to find that, although I was a creative with a love of learning, I was happy to work on better understanding how my humor and spirituality was used when relating with others.

Expert tips to improve school mental health

Essentially it is important to talk about mental health in schools. Have an open-door policy, encourage dialogue. Use assembly time, make it part of the PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) curriculum and celebrate awareness days. It helps when you don’t feel alone, and the more we talk about mental health and encourage awareness, acceptance and development will follow.

Ideas for individual learners accessing positive psychology include:

Gratitude journal

Keep a gratitude journal — a place where you can reflect on the positive things in life. The experience of writing and reflecting on the good things has been proven to lead to a happier and more meaningful life.

Daily mood chart

A daily mood chart can help students track their emotions and allow a common understanding on how to track engagement in class. A shared language is always a benefit when communicating, and a deeper understanding of an individual’s emotional levels is beneficial.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness activities such as a brief body scan can retune student engagement and encourage increased focus and concentration in the lesson.

Kindness week

Engage in a kindness week where students and staff go out of their way to write positive notes and do acts of kindness for others. Small gifts or sharing 3 good things that have happened to them are some examples. There are many resources on the web if you need more ideas!

Meditation

Meditation and use of mindfulness apps. Headspace and Woebot are free tools that can provide emotional support, relaxation and positive thinking.

A takeaway message

If education is about academic success, we may be missing the point. Aristotle said that happiness should be the main focus of education, and he may still have relevance today. We want our students to live out their dreams and be successful, and this should stem from a place of self-confidence and high self-esteem. Happiness and wellbeing are core to enhancing personal and community life. Even a small change can have a large impact.

If you need someone to talk to, please reach out to the local organisations in your area. Never feel alone!

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