Schools can support youth mental health

In the last few years, we have been confronted with alarming statistics on the mental health and wellbeing of young people.

Unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression and mental illness are being observed - something the pandemic has only served to exacerbate.

Organisations such as Headspace and Beyond Blue have been asserting that mental health professionals alone cannot address these issues, and that schools can play a major role in the prevention of mental illness in our children's later life.

But what does that look like? Many years ago, when I first started teaching, wellbeing support in schools was about "managing" students, in the hope that their classroom behaviour would improve.

Years later, when I became a principal, schools developed plans to improve student wellbeing in order to better engage them.

Following up absenteeism, responding to family breakdowns and better understanding religious and cultural difference was driven by a desire to improve learning outcomes and, ultimately, student performance.

But we now know a lot more about the important role of schools in a student's life. It's not just about helping improve classroom behaviour and academic results; it's also about building self-esteem and connection.

The pandemic and remote learning brought this point home very clearly; students, cut off from their teachers and friends, suffered the loss of their community.

Human beings need to connect, to belong, and to feel that they contribute, and schools are the places where this can be achieved.

Teachers also play a critical role here. In some cases, they are most stable and positive influence in a student's life.

So what can schools do to better support our young people, especially now when so many are suffering?

One approach is to offer specific training to equip teachers to better support students experiencing mental health issues.

At La Trobe University, we have developed a six-week online program, Mental Health and Wellbeing in Schools, following calls from concerned principals and teachers.

It will help develop teachers' understanding of student anxiety, depression and the impact of trauma on learning.

Mental health is a complex issue.

But with the right guidance and support - in addition to professional services - schools can play a vital role in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of young people.

If you need support, you can call  the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Originally published by Australian Community Media.

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