FACT: One in four young Australians currently has a mental health condition.1
FACT: Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians, accounting for the deaths of more young people than car accidents.2
FACT: Half of all lifetime cases of mental health disorders start by age 14 years.3
Young people are doing it tough these days. Research shows an alarming rise in the rate of mental health difficulties experienced by young Australians, particularly teenagers. Yet mental health education remains a token gesture of the Australian curriculum despite consistently high rates of child and adolescent mental health difficulties.
It is critical for the Australian Curriculum to promote effective and evidence based health strategies, since students spend most of their time in the school environment. It therefore follows that schools are an important setting to promote acceptance, compassion, resilience, understanding, and effective practical skills training in good mental health. Schools are increasingly interested in how to best psychologically support their students and staff, partly because they have a duty of care to provide a physically and mentally safe environment for those who attend, and partly because students who are healthy, learn better.
The Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education is organised into two content strands: ‘personal, social and community health’ and ‘movement and physical activity’. Each strand contains six focus areas.
The ‘movement and physical activity’ strand, as the name suggests, has a heavy focus on physical movement. The other strand, ‘personal, social and community health’ has within it mental health focus areas. A third of this strand is about the community, the environment, and respecting diversity. The rest has content related to self and other health, which includes mental health. One focus area is called ‘mental health and wellbeing’. To be fair, the rest of the ‘personal, social and community health’ focus areas have potential links to mental health. But then, so does physical activity.
So, to put it in context: one twelfth of the Health and Physical Education syllabus is aimed squarely at mental health. Remember, we are talking about syllabus, NOT active learning time. The lion’s share of the Health and Physical Education curriculum is given to physical activity, ie sport. The other half of the curriculum is often separated from other learning areas, and squeezed into one lesson a week, alongside the following (important) topics: alcohol and other drugs, food and nutrition, health benefits of physical activity (yes, more physical activity here), relationships and sexuality, and safety.
How can we teach our children the necessary skills for good mental health, when it is remains an afterthought of the Australian curriculum?
According to the Australian Curriculum:
The Mental health and wellbeing focus area addresses how mental health and wellbeing can be enhanced and strengthened at an individual and community level. It considers:
• mental health and wellbeing, and mental health promotion
• destigmatising mental illness in the community
• the impact of physical, social, spiritual and emotional health on wellbeing
• body image and self-worth and their impact on mental health and wellbeing
• resilience, and skills that support resilient behaviour
• coping skills, help-seeking strategies and community support resources
• networks of support for promoting mental health and wellbeing.
In theory, the curriculum is well thought out. In practice, there is insufficient time allocated to learning these vital skills, and they are separated from general learning. In addition, the Australian Curriculum itself asserts that the curriculum has an educative purpose, rather than a practical, skills based purpose. It’s currently more about learning the theory of good health, and less about the practice of good health. The practical component is all about physical movement.
The lack of experiential approach to good mental health will not solve the emerging crisis of Australia’s mental health difficulties.
One solution is for the Curriculum to increase the practical, skills based approach to good mental health, weaving it into other subjects from early childhood. Early learning is vital. In the earlier years, practical mental health skills could be woven into lessons, so that students are already skilful by the time they are in the senior school years. For example, a child in kindergarten can learn to identify their emotions in the course of their day. This will come in handy when their need to regulate their emotions is sorely tested as a teenager.
So let’s support an Australian Curriculum that delivers practical skills for our young Australians, to help them live a better life.
1 ABS National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (2008): Summary of Results 2007, page 9.
2 ABS Causes of Death, Australia, 2012 (2014). Underlying causes of death (Australia) Table 1.3
3 Kessler R, Berglund P, Demler O, Jin R, Merikangas K & Walters E. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age of onset distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 593.