Schools set to study up on mental health

The NCCA says ‘student wellbeing is at the heart of the vision of a new junior cycle’. Richard Hogan hopes it’s true

So, we recently marked the annual World Mental Health week. But, what did that really mean? The World Health Organisation’s theme for October 10 was Mental Health in the Workplace. It suggested the five ways to wellbeing are simple actions you can do in your everyday life to feel good and function well:

  • 1.Connect
  • 2.Be active
  • 3.Take notice
  • 4.Keep learning
  • 5.Give

For someone like myself, working in the mental health profession, last week brought the often silent issue of mental health into public discourse. The more we talk sensibly about the issue, the more we demystify it and therefore actually begin to understand the lived experiences of people who suffer with mental health issues.

Mental health is ‘in’ at the moment. It is so ‘in’, in fact, that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) recently declared that “student wellbeing is at the heart of the vision of a new junior cycle”. This vision has signalled an important shift in how we view mental health in this country. For too long now, families have had to suffer in silence for fear their child’s emotional or behavioural issue would bring shame on the family.

Therefore, the NCCA’s effort to demystify mental health must be commended. However, what shape this new initiative will take in the school has yet to be delineated for the teachers of Ireland. My greatest fear, as a systemically trained psychotherapist and schoolteacher, is that this ‘wellbeing’ will become just another one of those subjects that management gives to the younger teachers because their lack of permanency means they cannot say no.

In a conversation I had recently with an experienced career guidance teacher, she made a very insightful observation: “I hope this wellbeing doesn’t become another SPHE or CSPE.”

What she meant by this is that those subjects, which had the best of intentions in their drafting, fell significantly short of their potential because teachers were never adequately trained in how to deliver the content successfully. In fact, for the most part, teachers have come to dread finding those subjects on their timetable in August because the majority of teachers charged with teaching them have little or no interest in the topics they explore and, more importantly, are not trained in how to deliver it.

So, this declaration from the NCCA to make wellbeing central to the new junior cycle must be well thought out and include training for the teachers who will be given the important task of delivering the content in the classroom. There is a very real opportunity here to significantly change how our adolescents view themselves and their mental health. We cannot allow wellbeing to fall short like SPHE and CSPE. We owe it to our children to make sure it is taught well.

What we often find in schools is that new young teachers are charged with some sort of pastoral role for incoming first years. When we examine this more closely, we can clearly see the dangers of such a practice. It is conservatively estimated that about 20% of school children experience social, emotional, and behavioural difficulties, such as conduct problems, anxiety, and depression, during the course of any given year, and may need the use of mental health services.

A report on adolescent health published by the World Health Organisation in 2014 portrays depression as the top global cause of illness and disability among adolescents, with suicide being the third-biggest cause of death. The report mentions that half of mental health difficulties begin before the age of 14, underlining the need for swift intervention and mental health promotion from an early age.

What this report also highlights is the absolute need for young teachers to receive the appropriate training and skills to improve their efficacy and effectiveness while working with young adolescents. Therefore, whatever shape this wellbeing will take, it is essential that teachers receive the adequate training necessary to deliver this topic with a confidence and expertise that ensures our children’s mental health isn’t merely getting a cursory glance but is in fact being taken very seriously by both teacher and student alike.

The NCCA’s drafting of wellbeing into the curriculum must be met with praise because, at the very least, it has pushed the issue of adolescent mental health out from the dark corners of stigma and prejudice and into the bright light of social discourse. However, we owe it to our children to make sure the delivery of this topic is something that we can all be proud of.

In five years time, if teachers are dreading finding ‘wellbeing’ on their timetables, we will have missed a wonderful opportunity to significantly impact the world of our children as they navigate the tumultuous landscape of adolescence. And in short, we will have let them down.

It is essential teachers receive the adequate training necessary to deliver wellbeing classes. We owe it to our children


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