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