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How can schools help with mental health?

How can schools help with mental health?
The global pandemic is having a major effect on the mental health of children and adolescents. Here’s how your school can better support students who are experiencing mental health issues.

By Harriet Edmunds

Supporting students and families with mental health challenges has never been so important.

As a result of COVID-19, Australian medical researchers are noticing increased rates of mental health problems among parents and their children, especially those most affected by financial hardship. Interrupted education for students from foundation to high school this year has impacted on learning, friendships, socialisation, physical wellbeing and home life.

Pre-pandemic, the argument for introducing wellbeing programs at schools was already strengthened with youth mental health data such as:

  • One in four young Australians live with a mental health condition;
  • Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians, accounting for the deaths of more young people than car accidents; and
  • Half of all lifetime cases of mental health disorders start by age 14. 

In Australia, 14 per cent of four to 17 year old’s experience a mental health problem each year, amounting to 560,000 Australian children and adolescents in any one year, with 278,000 and 112,000 experiencing anxiety and depression disorders, respectively.

This is why mental health and physical wellbeing practices need to start early to build foundations that support students for life. A proactive approach is important, as research has shown that negative feelings and stress are contagious, so you would want to stop it before it even happens, says Associate Professor Eva Kyndt, who is co-leading the partnership between Readiness and Swinburne’s Centre for Mental Health.

“Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 highlighted a clear need for schools to take their responsibility in supporting student and teacher wellbeing,” she explains.

“The good news is, schools are becoming more proactive in offering psychological support for their students and staff, not only because they have a duty of care to provide a physically and mentally safe environment, but also because students who are healthy, learn better.

“During these unprecedented times, there has been an increased focus on the mental health and wellbeing of students.”

The benefits of mental health education in schools

When it comes to ‘why’ mental health should be taught in schools, research shows mental health issues can impact school performance and gaps grow wider between those with mental disorders and those without as the child ages.

According to the Young Minds Matter survey, students with a mental disorder in Year 3 were 7 to 11 months behind students with no mental disorder. While Year 9 students with a mental disorder were on average 1.5 to 2.8 years behind students with no mental disorder. 

Simon Kearney, Readiness co-founder, says schools that prioritise mental health education are more likely to see better rates of students wellbeing. “The benefits are helping students to meet their learning potential, helping them to cope with normal stresses, and enjoy feeling connected to their community and friends.”

“Schools that teach about mental health promote acceptance, compassion, resilience and understanding.”

The Australian Curriculum focuses on:

  • Mental health and wellbeing, and mental health promotion
  • Destigmatising mental illness in the community
  • The impact of physical, social, spiritual and emotional health on wellbeing
  • Body image and self-worth and their impact on mental health and wellbeing
  • Resilience, and skills that support resilient behaviour
  • Coping skills, help-seeking strategies and community support resources
  • Networks of support for promoting mental health and wellbeing.

“The problem is, we often hear that schools want more time to cover mental health learning – especially how to build resilience, which should be taught from a young age to ensure children flourish throughout their education journey and into adulthood.”

To help, Readiness offers schools a complete wellbeing platform for students and teachers to regularly “check in” with themselves and become more aware of their own mind and body performance. Readiness provides early identification of potential wellbeing imbalances and customises recommendations to help students before a deeper issue arises.

Mental health activities for school students

If you’re looking for engaging activities to help develop students and teachers mental health and physical wellbeing – beyond Mental Health Week – you’re in the right place.

While the awareness week in October along with World Mental Health Day are important reminders for people to look after their mental health, there are many other opportunities to engage in mental health education. For example, you could invite an expert to speak at your school, monitor and manage student mental health and wellbeing through regular self-assessments, or consider establishing a School Wellness Committee.

Search these useful resources for more mental health activities that might work for your school:

“Schools that teach about mental health promote acceptance, compassion, resilience and understanding.”

Simon Kearney, Co-founder of Readiness

Fostering mental health at home and school

It’s important to take a whole school approach when providing emotional support for students and teachers and ensure all of your school stakeholders – students, teachers, leaders, parents and the wider community – embrace your chosen wellness program.

The only way to really know how people are going is to encourage students and staff to regularly check in on their mental health and physical wellbeing at home and at school.

“We’re currently using the Readiness program and our students have reacted very positively to it,” says Chris Joplin, ICT & STEM Leader, St. Peter’s Primary School, East Bentleigh, Victoria.

“It’s a great way for teachers to get an insight on how students are feeling throughout the day and makes it easier for us to provide them with health and wellness tips. Readiness have created a fantastic program that helps you to track your own wellbeing and keeps you aware of how you can make changes to improve your mind and body, ultimately leading to an improved daily performance.” 

For guidance on how to get the most out of your mental health and wellbeing initiatives visit: Readiness for Schools.