Schools need to start teaching pupils mental health prevention skills – here's how

September 5, 2018 by Dusana Dorjee, The Conversation
Mental well-being should be embedded into education. Credit: Photographee.eu

Schools are often where children's and adolescents' mental health problems are identified. While there is ever growing demand for mental health support for pupils, such as in-school counselling and mentoring, the focus now – just like for any health problem – should be more on prevention than intervention.

Prevention makes sense financially, given that specialist mental health services for children and adolescents are currently overloaded, with long waiting lists. More importantly, helping young people develop traits, skills and strategies to protect their mental health can have a lifelong positive impact. And if mental health skills are broadly taught in schools and applied by pupils in a supportive learning context (and where possible also involve family, and are put into practice outside ) the health improvements could, in time, benefit the whole population.

In short, mental health prevention in schools makes a lot of sense. But according to a recent report, it is largely insufficient in UK schools. This is despite well-being being high on education policy agendas.

There seems to be an imbalance between learning about physical health and mental well-being. Most children are taught about the importance of things like exercise, a healthy diet and the risks of smoking in school. But they rarely learn about the impact of stress on their body, symptoms of anxiety and depression, or healthy mental habits. They are not taught how to prevent anxiety and excessive negative stress, or how to work with these experiences if they arise.

So how could schools effectively contribute to mental health prevention? To answer this question, we first need to be clear on what mental health prevention should focus on. In recent years, "resilience" has been frequently emphasised as central to mental health. But there are disagreements about what resilience means and how to measure it.

Definitions often place resilience in terms of positive responses to adversity. However, both resilience and well-being are strongly impacted by two core determinants of mental health – determinants of mental health which schools should be focusing on first for problem prevention.

The first determinant, "metacognitive self-regulation", is linked to reflective self-control – the ability to notice what is happening in our mind and body, and effectively manage our attention and emotions. This means, for example, that a pupil might notice they have repeated anxious thoughts about an upcoming exam. Or that they often get a tummy ache when they have to speak in front of the class. Noticing these initial signs can prompt the pupil to apply some strategies to reduce the anxious thoughts or stress. They may disengage their attention from repetitive thoughts, or apply techniques that help them feel less anxious. In this way, the pupil can prevent the early signs of mental health difficulties that they are experiencing from escalating into overwhelming clinical health problems.

The second determinant of is a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Research shows that adolescents who have a better sense of meaning and purpose are less likely to suffer from depression.

The sense of purpose arises in various forms. It could be a career one is working towards or a motivation to be really good at something, for instance. But when it goes beyond mere self focus, this sense can have particularly protective effects on mental health. Instead of solely focusing on "my achievements" or "my career", one can find deeper meaning and purpose in connecting with something bigger. This can be a connection with nature, religion, spiritual self-exploration or a contribution towards a larger positive cause.

Importantly, strengthening metacognitive self-regulation and having a positive sense of meaning/purpose in life is not only central to well-being but can also enhance academic performance. For example, chronically increased levels of stress associated with unhealthy sleep patterns and excessive anxiety can interfere with learning and negatively impact on exam performance. So self-regulating effectively will have a ripple effect on academic achievement. Similarly, having a clear purpose, such as wanting to make a positive difference or compassionately care for others, can strongly motivate a pupil's learning.

For children to develop their own metacognitive self-regulation and a of purpose and meaning, schools need to teach the relevant skills from early years until pupils finish education. Brief programmes in which children learn a few strategies are unlikely to have longer-term impact. A variety of approaches should be integrated into this, too, including attention training, mindfulness, and stress education. As well as basic cognitive-behavioural therapy strategies and relaxation techniques, there should be development of healthy qualities of mind such as compassion and gratitude, and reflective exploration of purpose and meaning of life including its spiritual dimensions.

Teaching such a curriculum will require somewhat radical changes to teacher education, however. It will also mean greater emphasis on teacher well-being – chronically stressed teachers who are unwell themselves are unlikely to be able to effectively deliver such lessons. Policy guidelines and school curricula will need changing, too.

It may seem like a lot to ask from an education system which is greatly stretched as is, but it might be the best investment we can make as a society.

Explore further: Key to lifelong good mental health – learn resilience in childhood

Related Stories

Key to lifelong good mental health – learn resilience in childhood

August 29, 2018
Poor mental health among young people is on the rise in the UK, while access to support and treatment remains patchy. There is now a pressing need to build resilience in young people to minimise their risk of poor mental ...

Mental health of teens with disability significantly harmed by peer bullying

August 10, 2018
Compared to those without a disability, adolescents with a disability have much poorer health and wellbeing, new research has found. They also experience bullying at a higher level than their peers.

Self-rating mental health as 'good' predicts positive future mental health

April 2, 2018
Researchers have found that when a person rates their current mental health as 'positive' despite meeting criteria for a mental health problem such as depression, it can predict good mental health in the future, even without ...

Inclusion in mainstream school can exacerbate feelings of being 'different' in pupils with autism spectrum conditions

November 16, 2017
Negative school experiences can have harmful long term effects on pupils with autism spectrum conditions, a new study in the journal Autism reports.

Achieving then failing in primary school is a sign of future teenage depression

March 23, 2018
Millions of people all over the world are experiencing mental health problems. And though the causes vary, we know that half of all these illnesses will have started in childhood or the teenage years.

Teachers can help reduce mental health problems in children, study finds

April 12, 2018
School-based mental health services delivered by teachers and staff can significantly reduce mental health problems in elementary-aged children, according to a new study by researchers at the Florida International University ...

Recommended for you

MDMA makes people cooperative, but not gullible

November 19, 2018
New research from King's College London has found that MDMA, the main ingredient in ecstasy, causes people to cooperate better—but only with trustworthy people. In the first study to look in detail at how MDMA impacts cooperative ...

Exploring the genetic contribution to suicide risk

November 19, 2018
Researchers at University of Utah Health identified four gene changes that occur more frequently in people who died by suicide that may point to increased risk in vulnerable individuals.

Study measures effectiveness of online communication tools in combatting depression among socially isolated seniors

November 19, 2018
Imagine your family has moved across the state or across country. You're retired, and your spouse has passed away. Lacking the social connections previous generations once found in church or fraternal organizations, it doesn't ...

Response to daily stressors could affect brain health in older adults

November 19, 2018
Taking typical daily annoyances such as a long wait at the doctor's office or a traffic jam on the freeway in stride may help preserve brain health in older adults, while emotional reactions could contribute to declines in ...

In-person, but not online, social contact may protect against psychiatric disorders

November 19, 2018
In-person social contact seems to offer some protection against depression and PTSD symptoms, but the same is not true of contact on Facebook, suggests a study by Veterans Affairs Portland Health Care System and Oregon Health ...

'Boomeranging' back to a parents' home negatively affects young adults' mental health

November 19, 2018
The number of young adults living in their own household has dropped dramatically in the last decades in the United States for a number of economic and social reasons. In a study that will soon be published in the peer-reviewed ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.