Learning how to care for our mental well-being should start in school

Learning how to care for our mental well-being should start in school
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The transition from high school to college is a major one – and with it often comes stress and problems we haven’t faced before.

It’s no surprise, then, that many students are finding it hard to cope.

Recently, the media has shone a spotlight on the rise of mental health issues among students, which has been a long time coming: universities are reporting a rise in students seeking out help from mental health services.

The Higher Education Policy Institute published a report last year supporting this, revealing that the number of university students in the UK doing so has grown by 50 percent over the past five years and calling on universities to triple their spending on mental health services in order to adequately meet the increasing demand.

Australian mental health advocate Minto Felix believes that governments and universities should collaborate in setting up a national plan and strategy on mental well-being, including a standardised policy across all institutions.

“Across all Australian universities, there should be a clear and consistent requirement in place for what services and programs they are required to provide for students.

“A robust policy needs to be developed to hold universities to account about their responsibilities in this area and to provide greater direction around the way in which these institutions partner with the public mental health system and other service providers in the provision of care,” he wrote in a Huffington Post article.

While mental health issues are likelier to manifest in students during university, according to experts, such problems tend to develop early in life, and the sooner they’re treated, the better, as youths can learn how to manage any underlying conditions.

In the latest Youth Index, released by the Prince’s Trust this week, up to 48 percent of those aged 16 to 25 said that they experienced problems during their school years that prevented them from concentrating on their academic work.

So what can we do address these issues in school, before they spin out of control?

School-based mental health care

Teachers are among those in the best position to identify pupils who are struggling and may require professional help, as they interact with them on a daily basis.

On Monday, the UK government announced plans to have all staff at secondary schools trained in mental-health first-aid.

However, schools facing budget cuts are feeling the pressure between meeting rising demands to provide adequate mental health care for pupils and increasingly diminishing resources in terms of allocations and manpower.

Speaking to the BBC on the topic, Russell Hobby, the general secretary for the National Association of Head Teachers, said that around three-quarters of schools lack the funds needed to provide good enough mental health care for pupils.

“Rising demand, growing complexity, and tight budgets are getting in the way of helping the children who need it most,” he said.

“Moves to make schools more accountable for the mental health of their pupils must first be accompanied by sufficient school funding and training for staff and should focus only on those areas where schools can act, including promotion of good mental health, identification, and signposting or referrals to the appropriate services,” he added.

Conducive learning environment

Dr. Debra Koss, a child psychiatrist based in the U.S., said that teenagers today face more external pressure and stress than they did years ago.

High expectations from family, school, and society in general to get good grades so they can get into a good university and secure a good job are producing a generation of young adults who are constantly feeling anxious.

Koss also names the widespread use of social media among youths is a key factor: “They have a terrible impact on self-esteem and social relationships.”

What some schools are doing to ease the pressure on pupils is to create a more calming, conducive learning environment.

This includes an emphasis on physical health and the practice of mindful thinking, as studies have shown that regular physical activity and mindfulness training can help improve academic performance and mental health.

There are also schools which are opening later so that students can get enough sleep, based on advice from the American Academy of Paediatrics.

Stacy Simera, the outreach director for Start School Later Inc., told KQED News that “the number of schools opening later has grown exponentially”, and have seen positive results.

A study by University of Minnesota researchers corroborated this, with its findings suggesting that later start times at eight high schools in the U.S. resulting in improved grades, attendance, and punctuality.

Youths spend a large portion of their lives in school, so if we hope to see any improvements in mental well-being among students, there’s no better place to start.

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