It was encouraging to hear Prime Minister Julia Gillard reiterate some of the priorities of her Government when she announced the Ministerial reshuffle. Amongst other things, she stressed the importance of mental health by promoting the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, to Cabinet as well as the importance of her government’s school reform agenda by nominating Brendan O’Connor with special responsibility to ensure that it is implemented.
This comes on a day when the Victorian Education Minister, Martin Dixon, has ordered an investigation into a worrying and increasing trend in Victorian schools of mental health issues amongst senior students. News.com.au reports that Victorian Education officials report that at least one student in Victoria attempts suicide each week.
As Martin Dixon said: “Any statistic in this field is tragic, whether it’s one or it’s 30.”
Let’s hope that when Butler, O’Connor, Dixon and his other state education Ministerial counterparts look at this matter that they consider work that has already been done and is having some impact.
A program known as ‘Mind Matters’ in secondary schools and ‘Kids Matter’ in primary schools has been in operation in some Australian schools for about ten years implemented by the peak professional development organisation for Australia’s 10,000 or so school principals.
The program aims to promote a ‘whole of school’ approach where young people feel valued, engaged, purposeful and safe.
Public health experts have long advocated the importance of delivering health improvement strategies in settings that have importance and influence. For a young person, school is one of the most important and influential aspects of their life.
School-based strategies for dealing with mental health issues and learning about other important health promotion measures are vital because young people spend a large proportion of their waking life in school including in developmental years in which risky or unhealthy behaviours can be formed. Because school is a recognised place of learning, it also has the structures and systems in place in which health education can be integrated.
But, for all the expertise and value they offer our children, teachers and school leaders are not also mental health and health experts; so the rationale behind ‘Mind Matters’ and ‘Kids Matter’ is to give school principals and teachers the resources and access to professional development so they can take positive steps to address mental health issues in their school student populations.
Results so far have been positive for health and education outcomes. For example, a Flinders University study that investigated the impact of ‘Kids Matter’ on academic performance showed that those schools which had implemented the program had improved student learning outcomes (based on 2008 NAPLAN results) up to six months ahead of non-implementing schools, over and above any influence of socio-economic background.
This approach has been further reinforced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in a 2006 review of school health promotion programs. The WHO study concluded that the most effective programs are those that address the mental wellbeing of students and their capacity to deal with situations (known as ‘resilience’), accompanied by environmental factors at the school such as appropriate curricula, involvement of the school community and appropriate training for staff.
‘Mind Matters’ and ‘Kids Matter’ may not be the answer for every child or every school. But they seem like a good place to start. If Martin Dixon’s interest and Mark Butler’s and Brendan O’Connor’s elevated roles are to mean something and be effective, let’s hope the Ministers look at what’s already available and has already had some positive impact prior to instigating yet another review or study which will take time – and potentially mean more lives lost.
Whether we’re parents or not, the mental and physical health and wellbeing of our young people is a critically important issue. As a community, we should be doing all we can to help young people deal with the vicissitudes of life; to give them the ‘resilience’ they need to be happy, healthy individuals with a sense of purpose and a sense of their value to themselves and the rest of society.
If you or anyone you know needs help, contact:
Lifeline – 13 11 14 (24 hour help line) www.lifeline.org.au
Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800 www.kidshelp.com.au
Beyond Blue – 13—22 4636 www.beyondblue.org.au
SANE Australia – 1800 18 SANE (7263) www.SANE.org
If you are a school principal, teacher or parent who would like to know more about ‘Mind Matters’ and ‘Kids Matter’, contact:
Principals Australia – 08 8394 2100 www.principalsaustralia.edu.au
Mind Matters – www.mindmatters.edu.au
Kids Matter – http://www.kidsmatter.edu.au
Dix K, Slee P, Lawson M, Keeves J (2010): Implementation Quality of Whole-School Mental Health Promotion and Students’ Academic Performance. Flinders University.
Stewart-Brown S: What is the evidence on school health promotion in improving health or preventing disease and, specifically, what is the effectiveness of the health promoting schools approach? Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe (Health Evidence Network report) 2006