The role schools take in supporting young people’s mental health and wellbeing is vital. But what can teachers do to reduce their sense of overwhelm?
Monash researcher and former school counsellor Sophie Lea joined forces with teacher Dylan Harris and school principal Kristy Kendall to explore ways a change in perspective can help.
Last year, I joined Monash Alumni’s Toorak College principal Kristy Kendall and Pakenham Springs Primary School teacher (and Tik-Toker extraordinaire) Dylan Harris to discuss how schools can better support our young people struggling with mental health issues.
While the pandemic informed part of our conversation, we took a wider view on what we considered to be the main ways school staff could help improve our young people's mental wellbeing into the future.
A responding mindset
When addressing students’ wellbeing, we should be mindful to respond instead of reacting. An effective way to make sure we are in the responding mindset is to allow students the space and permission to approach us. When we respond to their vulnerabilities with acceptance and care, students feel they are safe and supported when seeking help.
Educators can learn to recognise when expert intervention may be required and actively champion help-seeking behaviours. We encourage schools to consistently provide training for teachers to help them recognise when students need additional support.
The good news is the major shift in our society’s perception of mental health and its importance is happening. We now talk more openly about mental health, which paves the way for not only recognising when we — or others around us — need help, but also we focus on students getting more comfortable and aware of how to actively seek that support.
Recognise teachers already have the expertise
When students raise a mental health concern with teachers, teachers should feel confident in their expertise in communicating with, and understanding, young people. Every day teachers facilitate classroom conversations, listen, and ask questions to enhance students’ growth and learning. These valuable skills are easily transferable to support students' conversations on mental health and wellbeing.
To build up this confidence among teachers, schools need to support them as they offer guidance and necessary specialist referrals for students. Teachers can remind one another of their competency, embrace their transferable skills, and engage in wellbeing conversations beyond the classroom.
We want to move away from the old idea of needing to “fix” students. It is empowering for students if we help them understand and build awareness of their own mental health. For students to thrive in a state of wellbeing, they need to learn and apply approaches, that can best tackle their individual mental health concerns.
We suggest that schools provide students with the choice of how they wish to be supported. It is best if the student is central to devising and individualising their own mental health care plan. Every student has their unique ways of dealing with issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression and what may work for one person may not be the answer for another.
Educators can help students grow awareness of their resilience by helping them discover their strengths. These strengths do not diminish when mental health deteriorates, so students’ need to know they can still draw on them during challenging times. To help students realise their own self-awareness, and their coping mechanisms Kristy Kendall asks them: “What do you look like on your worst day?”
Kristy highlighted the importance of students moving their focus from their negative experiences to how they dealt with the challenging situation, what measures they put in place to lessen its impact, and how they emerged from the experience.
Work together as a school
A whole-school approach to wellbeing draws on the school community to keep mental health conversations and interventions a part of everyday life. When we support values that promote empathy, inclusiveness, vulnerability, belonging and resilience, we build a greater sense of unity within our school environment.
Tracking the progress of students’ mental health and wellbeing can help with purposeful interventions. For example, Toorak College has been collecting survey-based data on student wellbeing for the last four years, which provided valuable insights and specific guidance for relevant and further proactive wellbeing intervention. Organisations such as Resilient Youth Australia implement student surveys, providing schools with a specific understanding of their student cohorts wellbeing needs.
Rethink social media to harness the good
Dylan Harris feels it is important to bring the conversation around the impact of social media to our classrooms, bearing in mind its positive uses. He advises that social media can sometimes balance out negativity with its posts, memes, or reels demonstrating acts of positivity, kindness, and hope. He believes that teachers can ignite conversations with students around mental health, wellbeing, and positivity through social media just like he does on his TikTok account @deltar_dylan, which has 200,000 followers.
Kristy tells students to follow five people that inspire them in a bid to see more uplifting content on their social media feeds. We encourage schools to educate students on social media algorithms and how they can control its narrative and experience social media as a positive influence.