Mental health in schools
Chido Madzvamutse–Mental Wellness
As discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.
Schools can provide a conducive environment that can help foster mental well-being of children, young people and educators as well. Schools provide opportunities for early detection of common mental health problems and for making appropriate referrals for further care.
As the school year gets underway, children and young people will be spending most of their day at the learning institutions and it is important to consider mental health and well-being in schools to help children and young people to thrive.
How can the school environment influence mental health and well-being?
The experiences we have at school can deeply shape who and what we become in life. School provides opportunities to grow and develop physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially and can be agents for lifelong health. Schools can promote mental well-being through helping learners:
Understand and manage emotions: through interaction with other children and authority figures outside their own family in schools. Young people can develop skills to recognise and manage their own emotions as well as to be empathetic to the emotions of others.
Develop problem solving skills and mental flexibility: the school environment presents challenges and stressors that, with adequate support and guidance, can help learners develop problem solving skills and manage life stress which help them build resilience and cope better in life.
Develop a sense of purpose and ability to set goals and achieve them: school can help learners discover their abilities and purpose in life and with guidance they start to set goals towards what they want to achieve in life.
Unfortunately, school environments are not always conducive for mental health.
School related factors that can affect mental health negatively include:
Bullying: peer relationships among students are an important factor in mental well-being. While disagreements are common in all relationships, when there is physical or verbal abuse between learners and the other is intimidated or manipulated by another this can negatively impact both parties. The learner being bullied can be stressed and may be at risk of developing anxiety or depression or other mental health challenges.
They may struggle with low self-esteem and confidence due to the bullying.
The learner who is a bully is also affected by this experience particularly if the behaviour is not adequately addressed by school authorities and parents.
The learner may learn to use intimidation and manipulation as maladaptive approaches to relationships with others.
Those who bully others may be struggling with conduct disorder and other behavioural mental health problems that need to be appropriately managed. Some of those who bully others were bullied themselves at some point in their life.
Unhealthy academic or sporting pressure: While it is expected that there will be some pressure due to academic expectations and pressure to perform as part of school sporting teams, if this is excessive or inappropriate it can result in unhealthy stress. Pressure can be from both parents and teachers as well as other learners and can result in pupils or students failing to thrive in the classroom or sports field.
Lack of balance: School can potentially be a place for growth, learning and development physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially. Sometimes school environments are lopsided with much emphasis on academic performance at the expense of other aspects of development such as sports and exercise, social interaction and play. This can result in poor work life balance practices that can persist into adulthood negatively impacting mental well-being.
Common mental health problems that can affect the school environment and school performance.
It is estimated that one in five children experience poor mental health in some way while half of mental health problems usually start in childhood or adolescence.
Mental ill health can have a devastating impact on the school environment and on a learners’ ability to learn, grow and develop. Common mental health problems that can affect schooling include:
Anxiety: children can experience excessive, irrational fear in the form of severe separation anxiety, social anxiety and panic attacks and this can greatly impede their ability to interact with teachers and other learners which makes it difficult to learn and grow emotionally.
Depression: children and adolescents may develop challenges with sadness and irritability, fatigue and demotivation which can make it difficult to be attentive in school and to be motivated to pursue and accomplish goals at school. Depression in childhood is often missed and may be misunderstood as a poor attitude or laziness.
Hyperactivity and inattention: challenges with concentration and maintaining attention for extended periods of time can affect ability to learn and this can result in poor performance in school not due to poor intellect but due to not being able to concentrate long enough to catch essential learning concepts. This can be frustrating to both the learner and to the teacher.
Behaviour/conduct problems: disruptive behaviour problems such as conduct disorder or oppositional defiance are disruptive to the school environment but also affects the affected learner’s ability to form strong relationships which are key for mental well-being and for school performance.
Substance use problems: substance often starts as experimentation in adolescence. It may become a maladaptive coping mechanism for stress and other challenges. Substance use will affect ability to think clearly, focus, concentrate and work effectively. This affects school performance. Substance use may result in behaviour and conduct problems that can affect relationships with teachers and other learners.
How can schools help promote mental health of young people?
Creating psychologically safe environments with a culture of respect and care. This includes discouraging and dealing with bullying swiftly as well as involving learners in discussions about school mental health approaches.
Empowering teachers and school staff to be able to promote mental wellness for both learners and staff. Staff can also be trained to recognise early signs of mental distress, be psychological first aiders and to know when and where to refer someone for further care.
Including mental health and wellness topics in the curriculum to improve learner’s emotional awareness, coping skills and knowing when to seek help.
Promoting teacher wellness. Teachers play a critical role in the development and well-being of learners. The mental well-being of teachers is therefore a critical key to learner wellness. Teachers also need a conducive, psychologically safe work environment that promotes good work life balance and healthy workplace relationships. Teachers also need to learn to recognise their own distressing emotions and know when to seek help when needed.
If you think that you or someone that you know may be experiencing a mental health problem linked to the school environment you learn or teach in, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help. Association of Healthcare Funders of Zimbabwe (AHFoZ) article written by Dr Chido Rwafa Madzvamutse.