Educating young people about mental health

By Greg Whitby, 24 October 2018

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

October is mental health month, which reminds us of the need to teach young people social and emotional skills. Sadly, we have many more young people today reporting feelings of anxiety and depression. If we want them to be great learners and be happy, then we all need to understand wellbeing and mental health.

There are some outstanding wellbeing programs operating in schools. One of them is the Teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA) program developed here in Australia and now internationally recognised. Like a physical first aid program, students are educated in recognising in their peers and in themselves the early warning signs of mental illnesses.

tMHFA teaches that there are three key things present when a mental health problem is developing or is present in a person. First, there are significant changes in the person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Second, those changes negatively affect the person’s ability to do their usual activities. Third, these changes don’t go away after a reasonable period of time. These changes should not to be confused with normal human responses to difficult situations.

Emotions such as sadness, fear, anger and anxiety are all appropriate emotions in certain situations. However when these negative changes in someone’s mood, thoughts and behaviours show no signs of improvement within a few weeks or if things get worse, these are signs that professional help may be needed.

Young people are taught that if another young person discloses to them that they are experiencing mental health issues, they should encourage them to talk with a responsible adult like a parent, teacher, coach or family friend/relative who can then help them connect with a mental health professional. They are also taught that if it is a crisis situation where there is a significant risk of someone being hurt, this information should be disclosed immediately to a responsible adult, even if it means going against their friend’s wishes.

We all have a responsibility to reduce the stigma around mental illness in our schools and workplaces by increasing understanding about the issues. Although having a healthy mind and body does not make us immune from mental illness, they help to prevent it. Recognising the warning signs early helps everyone.

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta


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