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As human beings, we long for a sense of belonging and relationships. However, in a fallen world, our lives are plagued with uncertainty, tragedy and broken relationships. It is important to ensure students have a sense of hope, which is highlighted through ACC’s mission to ensure every student is well known, well loved and well taught. This mission is directly related to the overall mental health of the students.
Mental health refers to the emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing of an individual. It encompasses the ability to manage emotions, cope with stress, maintain healthy relationships, and make sound decisions. Just as physical health is essential for overall wellbeing, mental health plays a crucial role in determining how we think, feel, and act in various situations. It involves finding a balance between life's challenges and our capacity to handle them, as well as maintaining a positive sense of self-worth and resilience in the face of adversity. Mental health is a continuum, ranging from optimal wellbeing to varying degrees of distress, and it is vital to recognise and address both the highs and lows in order to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life.
The mental health landscape among Australian youth reveals that around 20% of 11 to 17-year-olds face considerable psychological distress, a figure that has risen from 12% to 15% for 18 to 24-year-olds in recent years.
Approximately 14% of 12 to 17-year-olds have experienced mental disorders, encompassing conditions like anxiety and ADHD.
Self-harm cases leading to hospitalisation have increased from 227 to 344 per 100,000 individuals, while suicides in 2019 reached a total of 461 for those aged 15-24, with males being more affected.
These figures underscore distinct gender and age disparities. In addressing these challenges, it becomes increasingly crucial for educational institutions to play an active role in early intervention. Schools can provide an essential platform for identifying signs of distress, offering support, and promoting mental health awareness among students, ultimately contributing to a more comprehensive approach to youth mental wellbeing.
There are a variety of situations that can trigger negative mental health responses in students, making it valuable to be conscious of these factors. These include:
- Family history and genetics.
- Trauma and past experiences.
- Isolation, loneliness, bullying, social and cultural uncertainties.
- Prolonged high levels of anxiety. Whilst some stress and anxiety is normal, concerns arise when it is experienced for long periods of time and inhibits normal functioning.
- Social media usage - that changes personality, behaviour and is addictive.
Schools in regional areas may have higher risk rates of mental health concerns - along with higher suicide and sef-harm statistics. This is largely due to limited resources, with limited access to psychologists, counsellors and overall a taboo mindset on the topic of mental health. This means many of the approaches to dealing with mental health in schools are largely reactive to negative experiences. This highlights the need to continue reaching regional communities to invest into proactive approaches to assist in supporting these students.
Personal Effects of Mental Health
Mental health issues among students can yield far-reaching consequences across various aspects of their lives. Some of the personal effects a student may experience due to mental health distress, can include;
- Academic Performance: Mental health challenges can lead to difficulties in concentrating, memory problems, and reduced cognitive function, ultimately affecting academic performance and grades.
- Motivation and Engagement: Students dealing with mental health issues might experience reduced motivation and engagement in learning activities, leading to decreased participation and lower achievement levels.
- Emotional Wellbeing: Unaddressed mental health problems can result in emotional distress, mood swings, and heightened stress levels, all of which can hinder students' overall wellbeing.
- Social Relationships: Mental health challenges can impact a student's ability to form and maintain healthy relationships, making it harder to communicate effectively, connect with peers, and collaborate on group projects.
- Behavioural Changes: Students might exhibit changes in behaviour, such as increased irritability, withdrawal from social activities, or difficulty managing emotions, all of which can affect their interactions and experiences at school.
- Physical Health: Mental health issues can contribute to physical health problems, including fatigue, sleep disturbances, and weakened immune systems, which can in turn impact attendance and participation in school.
- Self-Esteem and Confidence: Poor mental health can erode self-esteem and confidence, making students more susceptible to self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, which can hinder their willingness to take on challenges.
- Decision-Making and Problem-Solving: Mental health challenges can impede cognitive functions like decision-making and problem-solving, making it harder for students to analyse situations and make informed choices.
- Bullying and Peer Relations: Mental health problems can make students more vulnerable to bullying and negative peer interactions, potentially leading to social isolation and a negative school experience.
- Overall Quality of Life: Ultimately, mental health significantly influences students' overall quality of life, affecting their emotional resilience, ability to manage stress, and capacity to navigate the challenges of school and beyond.
Research has highlighted the direct correlation between mental health problems and reduced energy levels, concentration, and overall mental ability, all of which can hinder a student's academic performance and contribute to lower grades. Furthermore, the prevalence of depression and anxiety has been associated with higher rates of dropping out from educational institutions.
External Effects of Mental Health
The far-reaching implications of student mental health issues extend beyond the individual, affecting peers, families, staff, and even larger communities. Emotional strain is evident among peers, family members, and staff as they witness the struggles faced by these students, leading to strained relationships, reduced work productivity and therefore a flow-on effect into various aspects of others’ lives. Supporting those whose peers are struggling with mental health is of paramount importance, as their assistance and understanding can significantly contribute to the wellbeing of their friends.
Tragic outcomes like suicide not only devastate the immediate school community but also cast a shadow over the overall learning environment. The urgency to address student mental health issues becomes clear when considering the comprehensive impact on various levels, emphasising the need for institutions to proactively support students' mental wellbeing and mitigate these wide-ranging consequences. This collective responsibility underscores the necessity of fostering a supportive community that acknowledges the challenges students face and provides the necessary resources to help them navigate these difficulties.
- Curriculum Integration: Many schools incorporate mental health education into their curriculum, teaching students about stress management, emotional regulation, and building resilience.
- Wellbeing Programs: Schools often offer wellbeing programs that help students develop coping strategies, reduce stress, and improve their overall mental wellbeing.
- Counselling Services: Trained counsellors and psychologists are available on campus to provide individual and group counselling sessions, allowing students to discuss their concerns in a safe and supportive environment.
- Peer Support Networks: Schools establish peer support programs where trained student leaders provide assistance and a listening ear to fellow students who may be struggling with mental health challenges.
- Access to Mental Health Professionals: Some schools collaborate with external mental health organisations to provide on-site professionals who offer specialised support and interventions.
- Workshops and Seminars: Schools organise workshops and seminars that cover topics like stress management, anxiety reduction, and building positive relationships, equipping students with practical skills. For example, many ACC schools run PeaceWise programs.
- Awareness Campaigns: Many schools run mental health awareness campaigns to reduce stigma, raise awareness, and promote open discussions about mental health among students, staff, and parents. R U OK? Day is a good example of raising awareness about mental health.
- Online Resources: Schools often provide online resources and information about mental health, offering students a discreet way to access information and support.
- Parent Engagement: Schools involve parents in discussions about student mental health through workshops, seminars, and information sessions, fostering a collaborative approach.
- Referral Services: In cases where students need more specialised support, schools provide referrals to external mental health services and professionals.
- Individualised Support Plans: For students with specific mental health needs, schools will sometimes develop individualised support plans that outline strategies to help them succeed academically and emotionally.
- Collaboration with Community Partners: Schools collaborate with local mental health organisations and professionals to ensure a holistic and comprehensive approach to student wellbeing.
These approaches collectively demonstrate how Australian schools are dedicated to creating a supportive and nurturing environment that prioritises the mental health and wellbeing of their students. Obviously, the level of support will vary from one school to another.
Australian Christian College understands that mental health in schools is a concern that affects all aspects of a student’s life. There are two approaches that seek to support mental health for students - proactive and reactive approaches.
Similar to topics of student wellbeing and bullying, Australian Christian College has strategic approaches to ensure mental health in school is dealt with the utmost care and consideration of the whole person from a Godly perspective.
The Student Wellbeing Hub, hosts an array of services including chaplains, counsellors and psychologists, school nurse and ministry team to ensure any student who is experiencing mental health concerns has access to the diversity of care required.
When issues arise amongst the school community, such as personal tragedies, bullying or other traumatic events - the school will ensure that consistent support for students is provided to ensure they are feeling safe, both emotionally and physically.
Australian Christian College seeks to implement proactive approaches when supporting student’s mental health. High School students are encouraged multiple times a week to take part in a wellbeing survey. This data is then collected by the school to see trends in individuals and cohorts collectively to have a greater understanding of the mindset amongst year groups. Students can identify themselves for individualised care, which is then followed up by specific year appropriate staff.
The proactive nature of this resource was highlighted when data revealed that the current Year 8 group in a particular ACC school showed an upwards trend in negative belonging and anxiety-related mental health concerns. The school recognised this data and invested into a Wellbeing Seminar Day on the topic of how to build and maintain good relationships. At the core of the seminar is the fundamental truth that we as human beings, were designed by God to live in relationship, with Him and others. However, living in a sinful world - there will always be pain and hurt even in the best of relationships. A fundamental topic that is explored with the students is the power of words and the importance of effective communication for building each other up. Likewise, students at ACC are encouraged weekly to send a word of encouragement to another student.
This proactive mindset seeks to understand what is a season of life (such as exam anxiety during mid-year assessments), or whether there is something deeper and more irregular happening. By heavily investing into the education of Home Room teachers, it becomes easier to identify and support students who may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression before they develop into more serious mental health concerns.
An app is effectively implemented to assist in bridging the gap between the proactive and reactive spheres. This wellbeing app helps the school communicate indirectly with students who need help, as well as understand trends amongst individuals and groups who are experiencing early symptoms of mental health concerns.
As we delve deeper into the causes of these negative mental health responses, it becomes evident that regional schools, often constrained by limited resources, face unique obstacles in providing proactive support to their students.The varying scope of ACC schools in Australia, in particular, highlights the need for continued efforts to reach regional communities and invest in proactive approaches to support these students on their journey towards mental wellbeing.
The state of mental health in Australian schools is a pressing concern, with increasing levels of distress and disorders among students. Proactive measures to help students experiencing mental distress include wellbeing surveys, data analysis, and targeted interventions to address the specific needs of students. A collaborative approach involving students, staff, and the community generally proves to be most effective. Prioritising mental health awareness and early intervention not only improves students' lives but also contributes to societal wellbeing, serving as a model for educational institutions.