General News — 10 March 2014

An alarming snapshot of the mental health of Australian high school students  has found one in three girls and a quarter of boys are depressed, with many  turning to violence, alcohol and unwanted sex to cope with problems.

The study, of almost 4500 year 7 to 12 students, also revealed  34 per cent  of girls and 30 per cent of boys  felt constantly under strain and unable to  overcome difficulties.

More than half have low levels of resilience and, of those, 43 per cent feel  violence is an appropriate way to solve relationship issues.  A third are  drinking at dangerous levels and one in four lack the confidence to say no to  unwanted sexual experiences, while 16 per cent feel it necessary to carry a  weapon. One in 10 had gambled in the past year.bigstock_depression_18400418

The findings, from Resilient Youth Australia, have prompted calls for the  federal government to make emotional resilience lessons part of the national  curriculum.

Psychologists and educators say many young people lack the basic skills of  impulse control, conflict resolution and relationship-building to help them cope  with life’s challenges.

”As a nation we need to start empowering our kids and giving them these  skills. The kids who get violent  … and get really drunk often have no idea how  to form a relationship,” Andrew Fuller, a clinical psychologist and director of  Resilient Youth Australia, said.

”They are the same kids who are socially anxious and scared and believe that  somehow it’s OK to resolve their problems by hitting somebody.    The role of  schools is in educating the whole child rather than just focusing on a narrow  band of literacy and numeracy. A number of schools are already taking on board  social and emotional learning but many of them are our elite independent  schools, which is wonderful for them, but every child in Australia deserves this  kind of learning.”

The Sunday Age last week highlighted the growing popularity of  teaching emotional intelligence in schools partly in  response to concerns  about youth suicide, bullying and mental health  problems.

Emerging research suggests teaching children how to regulate their emotions  not only helps reduce stress and anxiety but can boost academic performance.

The Resilient Youth Australia survey found only 8 per cent of high school  students  had optimal levels of resilience – factors such as good relationships  with adults, engagement at school and a sense of empowerment –  to protect them  against engaging in violence, alcohol abuse and school dropout.

One in five had been bullied online and a third were suffering sleep  problems, while one in four lacked confidence and had trouble concentrating at  school.

Former teacher Janet Etty-Leal, who runs mindfulness and meditation lessons  in more than 70 schools  in Victoria, says helping kids calm down boosts their  attention,  a prerequisite for learning.

”When we teach mindfulness, in the first lesson you’ll see incredibly  impulsive, unsettled behaviour but by lesson four the transformation is  extraordinary. They start becoming aware and begin to befriend calm choices. For  a lot of kids to settle and be quiet and still is actually a foreign state that  they haven’t experienced so this helps them wake up and pause to reflect and be  considerate,” she said.

”From a teacher’s point of view if the class is harmonious, co-operative and  settled, their job is  10 times easier than putting out spot fires of emotional  dysfunction.”

Ms Etty-Leal said that while once children learnt social and emotional skills  from religious organisations or community groups such as Scouts and Girl Guides,  these institutions were less popular today and parents were often unable to  impart wisdom because of demanding work and home lives.

In January, Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced a review of the  national curriculum, headed by former teacher and ex-Liberal Party staffer Kevin  Donnelly. Mr Donnelly, who runs the think tank Education Standards Institute,  said he could not comment on whether social and emotional learning would form  part of the revised curriculum as submissions were still being reviewed.

This article first appeared on The Age on 9 March, 2014.

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