The Need for Mental Health Education in Australian Schools – Monash Lens


The disruption and stress of 2020 has resulted in an increase in mental health issues that are expected to continue into 2021.

Mental illness accounts for 16% of the global burden of illness and injury among 10-19 year olds. One in seven young Australians suffers from a mental disorder, a recent report found that young Australians were five times less likely to seek help in times of psychological distress.

Mental illness in young people can affect key areas such as education, achievement, relationships, and career success. The prevalence of mental health problems has increased among children and adolescents due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with mental health services struggling to keep pace.

A Headspace report carried out during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic found that about one in three young people were experiencing high levels of psychological distress. In Victoria, there was a 72% increase in 2020 in the number of serious self-harm presentations and suicidal ideation in youth emergency departments, and a 23% increase in mental health issues presented in emergency services compared to the previous year.

These statistics show the worrying trend of mental health problems among young people, pointing out that more effort is needed for support and prevention.

Read more: Now is the time for a paradigm shift in the way we treat mental illness

Stigma towards mental illness and a lack of mental health education is a barrier for young people seeking help with mental health issues. However, research suggests that young people want to know more about mental health and coping strategies in school.

Mental health encompasses more than mental illness; this includes educating people on how to promote mental wellness and asking for help when needed.

As the World Health Organization states: “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual becomes aware of their own capabilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and are able to contribute to his life. community.”

In this sense, mental health collectively includes prevention, promotion and treatment. Until recently, mental health followed a medical model, primarily associated with disease and treatment, rather than prevention and promotion.

Mental health literacy

Mental health literacy has evolved over the past 20 years since Anthony Jorm’s original proposal, and refers to knowledge of mental health (including how to promote positive mental health) and research options for ‘help / treatment.

Components of mental health promotion and prevention programs, such as learning coping strategies, addressing mental health issues, and increasing self-efficacy and resilience, are aspects of literacy in mental health that are associated with improved overall mental health.

When considering the high prevalence of mental illness among children and adolescents in Australia, it seems logical to focus on preventive approaches that incorporate mental health literacy.

There is a need to move away from the narrow focus on freedom from mental illness and towards promoting positive mental health. This could equip children and adolescents with tools and knowledge that can reduce the prevalence of mental illness in the future.

Schools provide a safe learning environment

Schools have been established as an optimal space for learning, and young people spend the majority of their time in school. Therefore, integrating mental health literacy programs into schools could resolve the transportation and access issues that often prevent young people from participating in such programs.

Experts say mental health should be a priority in schools in 2021. The Mental Health Practitioners Initiative began in July 2019 and provides funding to Victorian public schools to hire a mental health practitioner. This is part of the Victorian government’s $ 65.5 million investment in student health and wellness initiatives in schools.

Read more: Gains of Mind: Time to Expand the Offer of Psychology Studies in Schools

Schools provide an optimal framework for health promotion initiatives for children and adolescents, so why is there a lack of mental health education in schools?

Some leading researchers in the field have called for research on mental health literacy to link it to how to change help-seeking behavior and improve mental health. Many suggest that this is a generalized goal to increase the uptake and acceptability of mental health literacy among the population.

Research shows that teachers / educators lack the confidence and training to effectively support child and adolescent mental health. In addition, studies of school programs targeting mental health literacy for children and adolescents are limited.

Here’s how we can support youth mental health

Mental health literacy programs need to be implemented and evaluated for young people in order to increase the evidence base supporting programs in the Australian setting. International studies, such as the evaluation of the Youth Education and Support program in the United States, have found promising results on increasing mental health literacy among young people in an educational setting.

While teachers may not have the time or skills to deliver such a program, mental health practitioners in schools may have the capacity.

Read more: Mental health and coronavirus: How COVID-19 affects us

Recognizing the need for mental health support in schools and government investment is a step in the right direction, even though school-based mental health literacy programs appear to be a overlooked opportunity. Educating young people through school mental health literacy programs with a preventative approach could lead to positive mental health and better outcomes in life.

Our research team at the Monash Faculty of Education seeks to do just that – we aim to review and validate a school-based mental health program focused on youth.

The experiences and knowledge of young people in mental health and well-being are at the heart of the prevention program that will be put in place to adapt to the Australian context in response to the increase in mental health problems of young people during and after COVID-19.


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