Should Mental Health Classes Be Taught in Schools? Andrea Mara Finds Out...
I’d like many things from my children’s schooling. I’d like my kids to be readers, to enjoy art, to write essays and to love maths. I want them to try sports, fall down and learn to get up again.
I want them to be in the show even if they're mouthing the words at the back. But more than anything, I want my kids to have the resilience to deal with whatever school life throws at them. Because future exam results are a distant second to mental wellbeing and the ability to leave school in ten or twelve years time as strong, happy confident adults.
I suspect I’m not the only one who wishes this for their school-age kids, especially with greater awareness of mental health issues than ever before. So it’s not surprising that in our recent reader survey here on HerFamily.ie, when we asked if there should be mental health classes at school, 93 per cent of respondents said yes.
How would it work?
Schools already look after physical health through PE and team-sports, so why not mental health too? I can see why most people would be all for it, but how exactly would it work? What is in place at the moment, and what is the best model for the hypothetical mental health classes of the future?
I asked Professor Margaret Barry of NUIG if there is any mental health programme in Irish schools at present.
“Yes, there is the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum in all schools, which includes a strand on emotional wellbeing. The new curriculum also has quite a focus on children and young people’s social and emotional wellbeing in both primary and post-primary schools. An example of some the additional programmes that are being taught, though not universally, are Zippy’s Friends (emotional literacy and coping skills) and the Friends programmes (anxiety prevention) in primary schools.”
There are also guidelines in place from the Department of Education: Well Being in Primary Schools : Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion which June Tinsley, Head of Advocacy at Barnardos sees as a positive development.
“Learning to look after your mental health from a young age is invaluable, giving you essential life skills and techniques to cope with daily stresses and anxiety and the importance of talking and sharing your worries. Barnardos is a strong advocate for building a child’s social and emotional competencies, and the school, particularly their teachers, play a key role in this.”
The guidelines however are just that – guidelines to which schools can refer if necessary. Coupled with the SPHE curriculum and the (non-universal) programmes like Zippy’s Friends, is this enough? Dr Tony Bates, founding director and CEO of Jigsaw (formerly Headstrong) doesn’t think so.
“For a young person, mental health is the experience of having a sense of who they are, and having a sense of being connected – belonging, fitting in somewhere. Then as they get older it’s about having a sense of purpose – what am I doing here? What matters to me? What are my goals? When those things are working together - identity, belonging, purpose - people have a good experience of mental health.”
Dr Bates is keen to point out that mental wellbeing isn’t about trying to obliterate problems. “Mental health isn’t the absence of problems or moods. Those things come and go in every one of us. It’s not so much a state, it’s more a way of living where I can feel good about life and good about myself. That’s how I would see it.”
And of course, every young person is concerned to some extent with those questions. “Even small children are concerned with where they fit in, who likes them, what are they doing – it’s all very important. School is a place where people learn a lot about who they are themselves and where they fit in and what they’re good at. Mental health is the most important concern for young person – for every human being – so should there be more attention to it? Of course there should.”
One Good Adult
So what is the best approach – should we teach mental health via curriculum or though changing school culture?
“We’re moving towards trying to shift the culture of the school so we’re not relying exclusively on the curriculum,” explains Dr Bates. “It’s to look at how students are connecting with the school, and putting a primary focus on what Jigsaw calls the “one good adult”. Connectivity is at the heart of mental health. If you can boost a child’s sense of connecting and feeling they belong in a school, you’ve done an awful lot.”
So in practical terms, how do you change the culture? “You do it by prioritising the relationships young people have with each other, and with their teachers. By building a more relational culture and supporting teachers to be that one good adult – to be available occasionally to a young person who might signal that something is going on. Their signalling may be that they act out of character but these kids are not being bold, it’s not a discipline issue, it’s a welfare issue. Young people seeking help in the only way they know how, which is often to make a fuss. It means that a teacher looks at a kid in a certain way and communicates to that child ‘You know what – you’ve got something – you’ve got this. You’re good at this.’ You begin to see that this kid needs to be affirmed - that means the world to them. It’s possible to really build and strengthen a child’s sense of connection to the school and generally you have a healthier school - you get less bullying, fewer discipline problems.”
This isn’t just theory – it has been put into practice in a number of pilot schools as part of the Jigsaw Project. “This was done in five schools in Co. Meath over five years, and the results were so astounding it’s been scaled up to 21 schools in Co. Meath.” Dr Bates is currently developing a proposal to roll it out to 50 schools and will hold a public meeting on the project in September, at which he will have former Columbine High principal Frank DeAngelis as a keynote speaker.
He sums it up.
“Mental health is probably most important health issue for young people. Schools are where most of them are living. So should there be mental health taught in schools? It’s a no brainer, of course there should. How should it happen? Probably with some curriculum work, but it has to be thought out and coordinated and it needs to speak to the particular needs of that school, and the only people who know those needs are the students themselves and the teachers, so they have to be asked.”
As a parent of three small kids, I’m with the 93 per cent of HerFamily.ie readers - as Dr Bates says, it’s a no brainer.
For emerging details of Dr Bates’ public meeting, check Jigsaw.ie or join the conversation on Twitter at @HerFamilydotie.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after her three kids, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.