Schools encouraged to smash mental health stigma

Mental health advocate Grace Stanhope says teachers played a valuable support role when she dealt with mental health stresses. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Mental health advocate Grace Stanhope says teachers played a valuable support role when she dealt with mental health stresses. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

After the disruption of 2020, experts and mental health advocates say school communities should prioritise mental health during 2021 academic year.

Mental health advocate and speaker Grace Stanhope said teachers played a crucial role when she dealt with mental health issues during high school.

"My teachers were consistently checking in with me really casually after class, before class," she said.

"And not in a disciplinary way, but just asking me how things were going.

"I know my my teachers were keeping track of my levels of attention or distraction in classes and how well I was performing."

According to the Headspace National Mental Health Survey 2020, a third of young people reported high or very high levels of distress last year.

Over half of Australian young people reported being unable to carry out their daily activities on at least one day in the two weeks prior to the survey.

Clincial psychologist Dr Rebecca Davenport-Thomas and psychologist Sophie Ratcliff from Orygen said children and young people continue to experience emotional distress in 2021.

"They may struggle with feeling disconnected from their friends and schools, have fear and anxiety about the future, their health and school," they said.

"Some students may need additional support because of the disruptions to their learning, which they may also feel apprehensive about."

Ms Ratcliff and Dr Davenport-Thomas said teachers can constructively help students manage their emotions.

"This might include helping students to maintain routines within their school day, by breaking tasks down into smaller goals, setting realistic expectations and by helping students to regulate their emotions, for example, by using relaxation strategies," they said.

"Normalising feelings such as worry or anxiety, especially in the context of the pandemic, enables children and young people to recognise their feelings as understandable responses to unusual circumstances.

Batyr chief executive Nic Brown encouraged teachers to look out for changes in the behaviour of students.

"[Are students] being more or less sociable than usual? [Have they] lost interest in activities they usually enjoy.

"Get talking and start a conversation about mental health to encourage students to open up and reach out for support.

Mr Brown said teachers shouldn't be expected to singlehandedly solve the problems their students face, but they should provide a space for students to talk.

"After supporting a student it's important to check in with yourself and look after your own wellbeing as well and not to burn yourself out," he said.

"Be kind to yourself and reach out for support yourself if you need."

Mr Brown said young people were "powerful" and played an essential role in changing the conversation around mental health.

"Being open with your friends about how you look after your wellbeing can inspire them to also take charge or even open up about the struggles they've been having," he said

An education directorate spokesperson said student wellbeing was a priority of the ACT education system.

The spokesperson said the ACT has 81 psychologists working across the public school system, and the directorate have wellbeing teams in schools that address wellbeing needs of students.

This story 'Start a conversation': schools encouraged to smash mental health stigma first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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