October 14, 2021
Gloria García Bas
Head of Inclusion (iSENCO)
Deputy Child Protection and Wellbeing Coordinator (DCPC)
Mental health is a fundamental component of our health at all stages of life and affects how we think, feel and act, and, ultimately, how we deal with difficult situations, how we interact and what kinds of decisions we make.
The WHO, in its report on adolescent mental health (2020), states that between 10% and 20% of young people worldwide experience a mental health problem and that half of these problems begin at 14 years or earlier without being detected and treated. Suicide has become the fourth leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 19.
It is widely recognized that a child’s physical and emotional wellbeing influences their cognitive development and learning, as well as their physical and social health. Since children spend much of their day at school, the role of the educational context in helping to protect and promote mental health as well as children and young people wellbeing is more important than ever.
The school role
A mentally healthy school takes a global approach where all members of the educational community work together and are committed to creating a positive culture where there is a sense of belonging in a welcoming, inclusive and respectful environment.
This approach must begin to be built from the commitment of the school leadership team to defend and support the emotional wellbeing of children and staff. It is important to focus on communicating the positive impact of it in improving performance, school attendance and reducing behavioural problems, being a key element of the school’s strategic plan that must subsequently be put into practice.
Building positive and protective relationships
Considering that children and their families’ point of view is essential for them to feel engaged to promote a positive school culture, the school also must be aware of ensuring that the mental health of school staff and parents / tutors is as important as the learners’ one to truly provide them a truly emotional wellbeing model.
It is essential that the school builds strong protective relationships with and between children and young people. They must benefit from growing up in a safe educational environment where they can share their concerns and feel that their emotions and thoughts are validated, that they are listened, and that they find the support they need from both the teaching team and their own peers. The simple fact of knowing that there are trusted people with whom they can talk when they need it, without feeling judged, is a therapeutic strategy itself.
Promotion of the development of emotional and social skills through the curriculum
A mentally healthy school is capable of maximizing student learning by promoting the development of emotional, relational, and physical health skills essential to cope with setbacks; to help them identify protecting factors and implement self-caring strategies in an environment where mental health can be discussed openly and negative attitudes and stigmas can be challenged. Specific school events that enhance the culture of wellbeing, such as a mental health day or a digital safety week and incorporating lesson plans within the curriculum focused on the development of these skills, are some examples.
Early identification and care
The teaching team must be trained and equipped with tools to play a key role in early identification of emerging symptoms of mental health needs and know what to do if they have any concerns about them. Learning to check how students are feeling at the beginning of the day or incorporating a concern box in the classroom can be a good starting point in the detection and support process.
Robust detection and referral systems are necessary to intervene as soon as possible when mental health difficulties interrupt the progress and healthy functioning of a child or youth, providing personalized support tailored to their needs and working collaboratively with families and specialized external agents when necessary.
If I have learned something in these times as head of the department of educational inclusion and a member of the protection and welfare team of the school in which I have been working for more than 15 years, it is the tremendous innate recovery capacity of the human being, especially children and young people, and their resistance to overcome an experience as transcendent as the one we are living.
Today more than ever, to prevent, protect and listen to the needs of emotional wellbeing in childhood and adolescence help them to build a better life in which they understand that setbacks are part of our life experience. Learning from them, finding ways to take care of themselves and connect with others will give them a purpose for their lives and, therefore, become happier people.