FACT: One in four young Australians currently has a mental health condition. 1

FACT: Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians, accounting for the deaths of more young people than car accidents. 2

FACT: Half of all lifetime cases of mental health disorders start by age 14 years. 3

Young people are doing it tough these days. Research shows an alarming rise in the rate of mental health difficulties experienced by young Australians, particularly teenagers. Yet mental health education remains a token gesture of the Australian curriculum despite consistently high rates of child and adolescent mental health difficulties.

It is critical for the Australian Curriculum to promote effective and evidence based health strategies, since students spend most of their time in the school environment. It therefore follows that schools are an important setting to promote acceptance, compassion, resilience, understanding, and effective practical skills training in good mental health. Schools are increasingly interested in how to best psychologically support their students and staff, partly because they have a duty of care to provide a physically and mentally safe environment for those who attend, and partly because students who are healthy, learn better.

The Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education is organised into two content strands: ‘personal, social and community health’ and ‘movement and physical activity’. Each strand contains six focus areas. The ‘movement and physical activity’ strand, as the name suggests, has a heavy focus on physical movement. The other strand, ‘personal, social and community health’ has within it mental health focus areas. A third of this strand is about the community, the environment, and respecting diversity. The rest has content related to self and other health, which includes mental health.  One focus area is called ‘mental health and wellbeing’.  To be fair, the rest of the ‘personal, social and community health’ focus areas have potential links to mental health.  But then, so does physical activity.

So, to put it in context: one twelfth of the Health and Physical Education syllabus is aimed squarely at mental health. Remember, we are talking about syllabus, NOT active learning time. The lion’s share of the Health and Physical Education curriculum is given to physical activity, ie sport. The other half of the curriculum is often separated from other learning areas, and squeezed into one lesson a week, alongside the following (important) topics: alcohol and other drugs, food and nutrition, health benefits of physical activity (yes, more physical activity here), relationships and sexuality, and safety.

How can we teach our children the necessary skills for good mental health, when it is remains an afterthought of the Australian curriculum?

According to the Australian Curriculum:

The Mental health and wellbeing focus area addresses how mental health and wellbeing can be enhanced and strengthened at an individual and community level.  It considers:

  • Mental health and wellbeing, and mental health promotion
  • Destigmatising mental illness in the community
  • The impact of physical, social, spiritual and emotional health on wellbeing
  • Body image and self-worth and their impact on mental health and wellbeing
  • Resilience, and skills that support resilient behaviour
  • Coping skills, help-seeking strategies and community support resources
  • Networks of support for promoting mental health and wellbeing.

In theory, the curriculum is well thought out. In practice, there is insufficient time allocated to learning these vital skills, and they are separated from general learning. In addition, the Australian Curriculum itself asserts that the curriculum has an educative purpose, rather than a practical, skills based purpose. It’s currently more about learning the theory of good health, and less about the practice of good health. The practical component is all about physical movement.

The lack of experiential approach to good mental health will not solve the emerging crisis of Australia’s mental health difficulties.

One solution is for the Curriculum to increase the practical, skills based approach to good mental health, weaving it into other subjects from early childhood. Early learning is vital. In the earlier years, practical mental health skills could be woven into lessons, so that students are already skilful by the time they are in the senior school years. For example, a child in kindergarten can learn to identify their emotions in the course of their day. This will come in handy when their need to regulate their emotions is sorely tested as a teenager.

So let’s support an Australian Curriculum that delivers practical skills for our young Australians, to help them live a better life.

We’d love to hear your opinions on how mental health can better be incorporated into schools, whether you are a student, a young person, a parent, or a teacher.

References:
1 Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4326.0
2 Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2014). Causes of Death, Australia, 2012 (Table 1.3). Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/3303.0~2012~Main%20Features~Underlying%20Causes%20of%20Death%20by%20Selected%20ICD-10%20Chapters~10002
3 Kessler, R., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K., & Walters, E. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age of onset distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 593.

Maya is a Clinical Psychologist with an interest in active, practical psychological skills training. She has served as an Expert Witness in the Children’s Court, Family Court and Federal Court. Our party strives to have inclusive representation across all mental health professions and members of the public including people with lived experience, family and carers, and all others with an interest in positive mental health and well-being. We believe that good mental health belongs to all of us and that if we hope to change society, then we all need to identify personally with the way forward. If you would like to get involved and help us find better solutions, please contact us (at communications@amhp.org.au). We would love to hear from you!

 

2 comments

  1. Lharrup

    Reply

    I have been teaching for 12 years and without a doubt, my biggest concern today is the psychological well-being of my students. What we are facing is a pandemic of stress and anxiety related disorders that are turning our teens into dysfunctional adults. This then has the financial knock-on effect into the workforce and then further spirals when those adults go on to have children who in turn suffer the same conditions. My own battle with my mental health started at high school, but unfortunately, in the 80’s, it was a quick trip to the school psych where you would say all the right things and then left to get on with it. If we are to stop the tragic suicide rate and decrease the overwhelming costs on our health system we must start with school aged children and we need to include those that see these students on a daily basis that being their teachers. Most importantly is that it cannot be a teach from a package approach either, assuming that all staff will teach the content with the same enthusiasm or with the same heart is unreasonable. This is where past programs have failed, the solution is complex, and this is an issue that requires more than a 5-minute thought.
    What is clear though, is that what we are doing isn’t working. It’s time to stop flogging the dead horse, too many are suffering and dying on our watch from a disease that we have the capability to treat effectively. Time for the government to stand up and listen to what is going on in our schools, it is heartbreaking and it needs to stop.

  2. Fiona Boylan

    Reply

    I am a teacher in the early childhood sector and I am very concerned about the mental health issues I see even at this young age. I see evidence of high levels of anxiety, a lack of resilience, self worth and an inability to regulate emotions. In fact this concerns me so much I have now started my masters around the impact that mindset skills such as growth mindset can have in this area. I believe that if we can start this education of children’s minds at a young age then we can prevent the downward spiral that can happen in later years and give children the skills now to deal with the demands of an overloaded curriculum, NAPLAN and less time for play, all of which I believe have lead to the higher levels of anxiety I see in the early years. I agree that there needs to be more time given to the development of social emotional skills and research around the skills 21st century learners need supports this. As the AC has been written with this is mind it appears to not be delivering this aspect adequately. I have just written a trial program that I will be using with my class this term and this includes aspects around brain development, emotional development, fixed and growth mindset, making mistakes and goal setting. I am excited to see the effect this may have and the more I speak about it to parents and other teachers the more I see a huge need for this. In fact, just yesterday I spoke with a mum whose child is in a school where they have taken on the growth mindset approach and she said the difference in her year 6 child has been amazing.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *