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Student well-being at Wenona School

23 Jan 2019, by Amy Sarcevic

Adolescence is a difficult time for most people, but for a growing subset of young Australians, it is more than just an uncomfortable phase.

Statistics show that one in five 13-18 years-olds will experience a severe mental health disorder; and more than half of people with a lifetime mental health diagnosis will encounter their first brush with the illness at 14 years of age. Concerningly, suicide rates among adolescents are also sitting at a ten year high.

Federal efforts to foster student well-being have given birth to some robust initiatives and resources, many of which have been adopted and developed in schools over the years.

Ahead of the Sydney Morning Herald School Summit, Wenona School Principal, Dr. Briony Scott, describes the well-being philosophies that have helped earn her school national recognition.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”

It’s a famous quote that Dr. Scott, reminds herself of daily. To foster empathy and resilience, Dr. Scott regularly invites diverse speakers into her senior classrooms, to share their firsthand accounts of historic events, wars, racism, mental illness and crime victim-hood.

“Their stories are personal and thought provoking. We all learn so much from hearing about other people’s lives”, said Dr. Scott, who recalls, in particular, the heartfelt story of a refugee, describing her experience in the midst of the Arab Israeli conflict.

“The sessions help students consolidate academic knowledge, but they also give them a nuanced understanding of what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes. These are character-building skills that will serve them throughout their adult lives”, she said.

“Someone is raising our kids. If not us, then who?”

The brains of young people are highly plastic, meaning that they are easily molded by exposure to external stimuli.

“It’s important that we expose adolescents to the right kind of stimuli – and it all starts with our own behaviour. Children need good role models. If that’s not us, then who will they look to?”, said Dr. Scott.

“The way we act around our students sends out an important message. If we lose our temper every time something goes wrong, students learn very quickly how to behave when things go wrong for them”, she continued.

Re-narrating the story

Dr. Scott doesn’t dispute or downplay the statistics, but disagrees with the media’s tendency to “hyperbolise mental health” and “pathologise adolescence”.

“There is no denying that the adolescent period is challenging at times, with difficulties which may often be overwhelming for some students to deal with, particularly in such a pivotal phase of their lives. But the question is, what are we doing about it?”, she said.

Conscious of a potential self-fulfilling prophecy scenario, Dr. Scott chooses not to over-indulge in the media hype surrounding adolescent mental health, instead preferring to re-narrate the story to one of resilience and courage.

“At Wenona we have implemented a number of measures to develop resilience skills among our students and in doing so hope that they will go on to use what they have learnt, to live fulfilling and enriched lives.

“These skills are developed in the classroom, through mindfulness training, pastoral care programs, outdoor education and through a culture of emphasising what really matters in life. Character matters, our health matters, our peace of mind matters, our relationships matter. Everything else comes second”.

Going beyond the buzzwords and platitudes

Dr. Scott believes it is up to educators to look beyond the buzzwords and to ensure the robust well-being philosophies in schools are working as planned.

Presenting at the inaugural Sydney Morning Herald School Summit – 25 February 2019 in Sydney Dr. Briony Scott will discuss the specific steps Wenona school is taking to cultivate resilience and offset the rise in adolescent mental health.

You may download the full agenda here.

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