$100m Funding for School Mental Health

I was so thrilled to read this morning that the Australian government has announced $100 million to support school mental health programs.

The prevalence of mental illness is becoming more widely understood: each year, one in five Australians will experience a mental health difficulty, and mental illness is the third leading cause of disability burden. According to Beyond Blue, it's estimated that around one in seven Australian kids experience mental health issues and about half of all serious mental health issues in adulthood begin before the age of 14.

However, rather than go into more distressing statistics about mental illness, I want to talk about mental health. It's a common mistake for people to use the term mental health when they are referring to illnesses such as anxiety or depression. In fact, mental health is the term we use to describe when things are going well. When I facilitate workshops I encourage teachers to focus on how we can help students to feel well; to identify when they do and to work out how they can live their lives to stay in the 'thriving' zone. 

The thing is, if we can help develop kids' social and emotional skills at school so that they aren't just chugging along at 'neutral' but their mental health is actually thriving, then they won't have so far to fall when they hit the inevitable challenges that they will have to face, whether it be major, like the loss of a parent, or relatively minor like forgetting their library books.

This is why it is such wonderful news that attention is being given to preventative programs that start in Kindergarten. The programs that are being funded by this announcement aren't just looking to help people who are already experiencing mental health difficulties - they are preventative. If we can ensure that every child is taught using a framework of social and emotional learning and resilience, and this is extended from the school to families, then we can start to hope that they will have the resilience needed to prevent (some) mental illness.

It's my hope that in another generation it will seem normal for classrooms to be practising lessons in subjects like mindfulness, gratitude, conflict resolution and kindness, and learning strategies for how to change a bad mood into a good mood. Just as literacy and numeracy are focused on in NAPLAN, I am confident that in time, policy makers will understand the benefit of measuring wellbeing alongside academic outcomes. Indeed, a study in the US found that the academic outcomes of students who had been taught social and emotional skills rose by 11%, as well as statistically significant associations between social and emotional skills in kindergarten and outcomes for young adults later in employment. Surely there is an economic as well as social imperative for policy makers to take note?

The fact that attention is being given to mental health education means it is an exciting time for Australian education. I hope it is the beginning of a new understanding and respect for the fact that preventative wellbeing and resilience education in all schools is not a luxury but a necessity for generations to come.

Rose Pennington