Teaching · Wellbeing

Are we creating a mental health crisis in schools?

The Victorian Education department has advised us to make Learning and Excellence our second priority in Term four and focus primarily on Wellbeing and Equity

“For all other children and young people from early years right through to year 11, we have got time.

“We have got time to focus on their health and wellbeing.

“We have got time to catch them up academically, if they need it, and we will have more to say about that at a later time.

“But, for our Year 12 students, this is it. This is their last year of schooling.”

The school operations guide sets out our 3 priorities.

So we are to prioritize “Wellbeing and Equity” and our student’s mental health above “Learning and Excellence”.

Why, I ask?

We are getting into dangerous ground when schools first priority is not Learning and Excellence. The primary objective of schools is education, not wellbeing. Of course we can, and should do both, but to prioritize Wellbeing and Equity over Learning and Excellence is to misconstrue our core purpose.

It may seem cold and hard hearted to question this priority list. Haven’t the students been under immense mental anguish? Hasn’t the stress of lockdown, followed by back to school followed by lockdown again followed by back to school again been enough? Won’t their poor little emotional wellbeing tanks be running on empty?

Let’s actually step back and look at this rationally. How has the COVID Pandemic affected our students?

Hardly any young people have got sick. In rural areas like ours, hardly any students even know anyone who was sick. COVID19 for young people is a very mild disease. The seasonal flu for young people is a worse disease.

The major stressors for the students may have been the scare campaign the government ran, and continues to run, to encourage us to abide by the lockdown restrictions. It was an effective scare campaign and some people were fearful. Young people should not have been fearful if we told them the truth.

What about the fact that their parents were losing their jobs?

For some of our students this would be a stressor. The effect of the lockdown has been to destroy the hospitality, entertainment and tourism industry. For some of our students whose parents work in these industries, home-life would be stressful. The government’s job keeper program has been utilized widely. I concede this point but it affects parents more than students.

What about the fact that our students were socially isolated?

Their rights of passage activities like school camps, school productions, presentation balls, Year 11 Formals and Valedictory Dinner have all been cancelled. Their weekend and school sport has been cancelled. They were not allowed to go and visit their friends after school

While missing these things is disappointing it is hardly grounds to say we have a serious mental health issue on our hands. In 2020 kids are never out of touch with friends. They spend on average 9 hours a day on some type of screen. This would have increased during lockdown. While kids were physically isolated they were still able to socialize.

Much of our response to COVID has been about stopping transmission and how we treat the disease. There has been little focus on prevention.

Obvious risk factors can be avoided. Obesity and a lack of vitamin D are known risk factors for COVID. Get fit, lose some weight, stay healthy, get outdoors and get some sunlight are simple preventative measures that should have been the backbone of our community response to COVID. Put the “prevent defence” first. Rather than locking down and encouraging people to get tested, we should have focused more on prevention.

We seem to be doing the same in terms of student mental health and wellbeing. What preventative strategies are we putting in place there?

We are gearing up to respond to mental health issues rather than actively teaching students how to cope with adversity. We ran “Mental Heath First Aid” training for all our Year 9 Students last year. This is like teaching them all how to strap a sprained ankle rather than teaching them how to prevent spraining their ankles in the first place.

Students now routinely talk about their “mental health”. “Don’t give us so much work as it is bad for our mental health?”

We have medicalized wellbeing, treating mental and physical wellbeing as one and the same thing. A broken arm is different to anxiety yet both are unquestionably regarded as medical conditions.

We ask questions like this each year on the attitudes to school survey. They become a self fulfilling prophecy.

That will make students feel great.

Then they go on to answer this question.

Notice there are no options like

  • I felt awesome
  • I felt happy
  • I laughed a lot
  • I was energetic and jumping out of my skin.

We then go on to ask a series of questions about screen time.

We don’t ask any questions about how much time kids spend reading a book. It seems we only want the bad news.

Then we will say we have a mental health crisis in young people.

Whose responsibility is a student’s mental health?

The answer is “theirs”.

We should be teaching Stoic Philosophy as an preventative measure to student mental health issues.

Prevention is better than cure.

Here are three Stoic Lessons all students need to learn.

1. Worry about what is in your control.

Stoic Philosophy starts by teaching people to identify what they can and cannot control.

When something is beyond their control they should not let it affect their mental wellbeing.

covidcontrol

We should always be asking ourselves: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?”

Epictetus, Enchiridion

2. It is your reaction to a situation, not the situation itself that affects your wellbeing.

The Stoics also taught that any situation is only good or bad if you choose to interpret it that way.

If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

3. Amor Fati

Amor Fati is the practice of accepting and embracing everything that has happened, is happening, and is yet to happen.

Amor Fati is summed up beautifully in Jacko Willing video called “Good”.

Rather than reacting to students who have struggled with lockdown we should be teaching them how to look at the world with a Stoic Outlook.

Student’s mental health and wellbeing is something they control.

Prevention is better than cure.

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