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Normalising mental health protocols and intervention in Australian schools

20 Sep 2019, by Amy Sarcevic

When it comes to physical health, we’re not short of nationally-endorsed protocols that support our wellbeing. From hand-railings on public stairways, to mandatory vaccinations, to the highly-publicised “slip slop slap” sunscreen campaign.

The same also applies in school settings. When a child is injured, they’ll receive first aid from an appointed, trained first aider. There will be rules in place to help avoid further incidents, like ‘no running in the corridors’; and support mechanisms for those who have suffered more serious outcomes, like wheelchair ramps for those with walking impediments.

Mental health charity, Beyond Blue, would like to see mental health normalised and taken just as seriously as physical health in Australian schools.

It recently launched its “Be You” national education initiative, an online professional learning program – developed and delivered in conjunction with Early Childhood Australia (ECA) and Headspace – which strives to promote greater mental health literacy and support skills among Australian educators.

“Be You is an evidence-based initiative, targeted at educators from early learning services, primary and secondary schools, and pre-service educators from TAFE and tertiary institutions, which aims to foster positive, inclusive and resilient learning communities,” said General Manager Nadine Bartholomeusz-Raymond, ahead of The Age Schools Summit.

“It enables educators to provide adequate support for anyone up to 18 years of age, who may be suffering from psychological distress, a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health condition.”

Since launching, Be You has received close to 80,000 individual educator registrations, as well as registrations from more than 6000 primary and secondary schools and 2700 early learning services. Nadine says this uptake is a major milestone in the charity’s quest to change societal attitudes towards mental health.

“The concept of ‘wellness’ has dominated educational rhetoric for quite some time. However, there is still a lack of consensus or clarity in terms of what a wellness culture looks like in practice. To effect change we need to go beyond the buzzwords and implement practical measures that are as commonplace as a school first aider,” she said.

Using the Be You platform, early learning services and schools can gain access to a vast pool of resources, as well as support from over 70 highly trained staff from ECA and headspace. Participants will learn how to recognise the early warning signs of mental health issues in the classroom, how to respond to critical incidents, and how to provide continued support to those who may be suffering.

The initiative has been hailed as a “game changer” against a backdrop of ever-concerning mental health statistics. In Australia, as it stands, one in seven Australian children will experience a mental health condition in any given twelve-month period (Child & Adolescent Survey 2015). Half of those with a lifetime mental health diagnosis will encounter their first brush with the condition before the age of 14 (Kessler et al. 2005). And up to 10 percent of Australians aged 14 and 15 years will self-harm (Australian Institute of Family Studies 2017).

Suicide also continues to be the biggest killer of young Australians, with up to 5 percent attempting suicide every year (Australian Institute of Family Studies 2017). In addition, over 16 percent of absences recorded in secondary schools are attributed to mental health.

Nadine believes the role of a school is vital in improving these statistics, with 40 percent of parents saying that school was the place that first identified their child needed support (Child & Adolescent Survey 2015).

“We see educators as critical mediators and influencers of childrens’ mental health and believe that by improving the literacy in this space we can make a big difference to the wellbeing of our nation,” she said.

“We want to totally remove the stigma surrounding mental health intervention and really drive home the message that there is no health without mental health.”

Student wellbeing and resilience will be a key theme at The Age Schools Summit, due to take place October 9, 2019 in Melbourne.

Learn more and register here.

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