What is happening?
In the World Health Organisation report, Health for the World’s Adolescents (2014), depression is highlighted as the main cause of illness and disability for adolescents aged 10 to 19, and suicide; and the chief cause of death after traffic injuries and HIV/AIDS.
Research shows that foundations laid during adolescence have profound impacts on a nation’s social fabric and economic productivity.
The report draws on published evidence and direct consultations from around the world. Some studies show that half of all people who develop mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, or eating disorders, exhibit symptoms by the age of 14 that often go unrecognised. Authors call on nations to respond to the needs of adolescents’ physical and mental health more urgently; noting the important role schools can play in these endeavours.
Despite a wealth of research in the field of adolescent mental health, experts say action has been too slow. Consequently, the report’s authors chose to focus “high level attention” on the major health impacts to provide a “springboard for accelerated action”.
While more must be done, many note that interest in adolescent mental health is slowly gathering momentum; prompted by enhanced understanding of adolescent developmental processes; recognition that adolescents – who often constitute over 20 per cent of a nation’s population – have a valuable contribution to make to society, and acknowledgement that more must be done to address the tragic role mental illness plays in youth mortality.
How are schools dealing with youth mental health overseas?
Youth mental illness is a major problem around the world. While the political will to take substantive action is steadily growing, nations continue to grapple in their response. In India, mental health is a very recent addition to school health programmes, but is by no means universal.
In China, the Ministry of Education is reportedly introducing psychological counselling rooms in schools and in South Korea, the government has developed a smartphone app to detect “suicide-related” words that trigger an alert for parents; all in response to high rates of student suicide, depression and anxiety.
In the US, many are pinning hopes on the Mental Health in Schools Act to prompt national action. Under this legislation, funds would be used to educate teachers and foster collaboration between schools and community services. Schools across the United Kingdom received a funding boost for 2015-2016 to improve the detection of mental illness in students; to help schools plan prevention strategies and to foster cooperative links with local mental health services.
How is mental health dealt with in Australian schools?
Depression and suicide are a tragic reality for many Australians; however, an increasing number of schools are taking a proactive stance. Mental health is also broadly addressed in the Australian Curriculum, covering issues including self-esteem, body image, resilience and life-coping skills.
According to the recently published Mental Health of Children and Adolescents survey – the largest national survey examining mental health issues for 4 to 17 year-olds – schools have been shown to play a significant role in detecting concerns, supporting students and providing referrals to appropriate services.
Preventative programs are also widely on offer, utilising mindfulness techniques to promote emotional self-awareness, impulse control, conflict resolution and resilience. One such program, MindMatters, is currently being taught in over 500 Australian secondary schools, with reported success.
The Government’s school chaplaincy program remains controversial: critics argue that vulnerable students need trained welfare workers – no longer funded under the scheme – rather than religious chaplains, for mental health support.
What do proponents of mental health education in schools say?
Research shows that foundations laid during adolescence have profound impacts on a nation’s social fabric and economic productivity. Some experts argue that, to this end, mental health in schools should be given the same weight as English, maths and science.
They say teachers should be trained to recognise symptoms; to educate students about mental health; to administer guidance and support, and to refer students to outside services when necessary. Many argue for efforts to be made that will “de-stigmatise” mental illness in the community and create an “open culture” to encourage at-risk students to seek help.
Some call for schools to pay more attention to the social environment. They say that encouraging healthy eating; fostering positive relationships between students and staff; providing a safe physical environment, and encouraging more participation in school life can hold great benefits for students’ mental health.
What are some impediments?
According to a survey of 600 Australian teachers and principals conducted by “beyondblue”, almost half claim they do not have the time to focus on mental health issues; a fifth believe it is not their responsibility, and only a third responded that their school provided training to support student mental health.
With studies showing that depression has an enormous impact on school attendance and student functioning, many say a “whole-of-community” response is needed to overcome the obstacles that prevent young people from seeking help; including the cost of services, availability of transport, stigma, discrimination, confidentiality and waiting times. Others say we should take care not to overlook “high-performing” students: those who appear to be coping on the surface, but who may be at risk.
Research tells us that most mental illnesses are treatable, particularly if addressed early; and that focusing on the mental health needs of adolescents will promote the development of well-rounded, productive citizens.
Former UK health minister Paul Burstow says that if we fail to take action on youth mental health, “we are condemning millions in need of support and treatment” to lives of “isolation and stigma” – a “waste of human potential and a massive false economy”.
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 26 August 2015.