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APACS: Why support student wellbeing in schools?

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” - Jiddu Krishnamurti


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child1 states that “every child has the right not only to survive, but to live to their fullest potential, developing healthily in conditions that do not adversely affect their physical and mental wellbeing”.


It is therefore essential to enhance and promote wellbeing in childhood and adolescence in the hope of preventing illbeing. (2) 


Adversely, interruptions to wellbeing and mental health in young people are linked with undesirable outcomes, including a decrease in academic success,3 decrease in school engagement, (4) and a vulnerability to mental illness across their lifespan.5


By 2030, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has predicted that depression will be the leading cause of disease and disability burden,6 which is a staggering statistic.

Furthermore, the negative impacts of a pandemic and other concerns for young people, such as climate change, (7) are yet to be fully seen.


Living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world has unquestionably brought the need for wellbeing and resilience in schools and communities to the nation’s attention.8


As a result, it is essential that both schools and the wider community move into the wellbeing prevention and promotion spaces, using evidence-based interventions such as positive psychology (PP).


Relatively new since its emergence in the late 1990s, PP was a significant shift away from traditional psychology and the illness-focused medical model. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi9 defined PP as the “scientific study of what goes right in life, from birth to death and all stops in between”.


This definition was later expanded to “positive psychology contributes a comprehensive approach to mental health by adding investigation of positive emotions and human strengths to existing knowledge of mental illness”. (10)


Wellbeing literacy


“Words create worlds.”- Abraham Joshua Herschel


The language that is used by educators is critical. In schools and communities, it is important to validate lived experiences, reduce stigma and enhance knowledge and empathy in young people.


Commonly, the terms mental health and wellbeing are used interchangeably. There is a vast array of definitions for these terms, with notably varied meanings and nuances.11

However, the term mental health is often viewed as illness centric rather than being focused on health, or being mentally healthy. When people are asked to think of the term mental health, often the first thing that springs to mind are terms like “depression, anxiety, schizophrenia”, or mental illness and mental ill health. (12)


WHO13 defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.


Mental health is an integral and essential component of health. The WHO constitution states14: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”


An important implication of this definition is that mental health is more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities. Mental health is fundamental to humans’ collective and individual ability to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life.


On this basis, the promotion, protection and restoration of mental health can be regarded as a vital concern of individuals, communities and societies throughout the world, making education well-placed to make a significant and lasting difference.

Wellbeing can be defined as, “feeling good, functioning well and doing good for others”. (15)


When individuals are mindful and intentional about the language they use in regards to wellbeing, this enhances wellbeing literacy, or the “capability to comprehend and compose wellbeing language, across contexts, with the intention of using such language to maintain or improve the wellbeing of oneself, others or the world”. (12)


Language is a key lever for influencing wellbeing because it is natural, ubiquitous and constant. Importantly, wellbeing literacy may provide the essential conduit between wellbeing interventions and wellbeing outcomes, providing a common language to build wellbeing capabilities within schools and communities. (8)


Wellbeing literacy has also been shown to be positively related to wellbeing and negatively related to illbeing. (16)



Prevention and promotion


“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”- Desmond Tutu


Seligman17 saw the opportunity for ‘getting upstream’ through the promotion of wellbeing and prevention of illbeing in schools and education, and therefore coined the term ‘positive education’ (PE), which can be defined as “education for happiness and wellbeing, as well as traditional academic skills”. 


This view has further been broadened and individuals can now look to wellbeing sciences, which “is the scientific investigation of wellbeing, its antecedents and consequences”.


Alongside the growth of wellbeing science is notable interest in wellbeing interventions at individual, organisational and population levels. (12) Once again, education is well placed to look at interventions on multiple levels to support flourishing students, classrooms, schools and communities. (18)


When wellbeing in schools is improved, the research shows a reduction in a variety of issues experienced by young people, including anxiety, depression,stress, negative affect, social problems, behaviour problems, avoidance, coping, boredom, and emotional problems. (11) 


When wellbeing is improved in schools, there are improvements in life satisfaction, hope, engagement, self-worth, self-efficacy, peer relations, motivation, optimism,social skills, academic achievement, and so much more. (11)


The approach to wellbeing and mental health promotion in schools should ideally be multi-tiered. Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) provide a method, or early identification and intervention, for students who are struggling or languishing as well as address the needs of groups and the whole school or system.


Tier 1 is described as universal or primary interventions, and encompasses whole school interventions. Tier 2, or secondary inventions, are small group interventions. For example, a specific class that is experiencing lots of social conflicts may adopt an evidence-based social skills program to support healthy relationships. Alternatively, a school may elect to run a support/therapeutic group for students specifically affected by grief and loss. (19)


Tier 3, or tertiary, is specific and targeted interventions for individuals. These students are those who are experiencing significant challenges. Tier 3 interventions give these students individualised support and can include outside agencies, but usually involves a school student support team. This may consist of school leadership, mental health practitioners such as the school psychologist and counsellor, learning support, and other key stakeholders. (19)


Considering the multi-tiered approach, if all that schools and systems are doing is working in the Tier 3 space or are only intervening when young people are languishing or ill, this is a waiting to fail approach. (19)


While specialised services and supports, as well as counselling, are crucial for individuals who require it, a group and systemic approach also needs to be considered. (18) This is especially important in schools considering the current rise of illness in society, and the challenges that many face in accessing health care in the broader community.


Often instrumental in leading wellbeing in schools and managing change and improvement is the school psychologist or counsellor.


Together with support from the administration, key school supporters and wellbeing champions, a significant difference can be made in the efforts to get ‘upstream’ to enhance the wellbeing and mental health across schools, systems and indeed communities, allowing students to flourish.


References

1. Office of the United Nations of High Commissioner for Human Rights. (1989). Convention on the rights of the child. General assembly resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989. Retrieved from www2.ohcrh.org/english/law/crc.htm.

2. Stasulane, A. (2017). Factors Determining Children and Young Peoples Well-being at School. Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 19(2), 165–179. https://doi.org/10.1515/jtes-2017-0021

3. Suldo, S., Thalji, A., & Ferron, J. (2011). Longitudinal academic outcomes predicted by early adolescents’ subjective well-being, psychopathology, and mental health status yielded from a dual factor model, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6:1, 17-30, http://DOI:10.1080/17439760.2010.536774

4. Knollmann, M., Reissner, V. & Hebebrand, J. (2019). Towards a comprehensive assessment of school absenteeism: development and initial validation of the inventory of school attendance problems. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 28, 399–414. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-018-1204-2

5. Kessler, R.C., Angermeyer, M., Anthony, J.C., Graaf, R., Demyttenaere, K., Gasquet, I., Girolamo, G., Gluzman, S., Gureje, O., Haro, J.M., Kawakami, N., Karam, A., Levinson, D., Medina Mora, M.E., Oakley Browne, M.A., Posada-Villa, J., Stein, D.J., Adley Tsang, C.H., Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Alonso, J., Lee, S., Heeringa, S., Pennell, B.E., Berglund, P., Gruber, M.J., Petukhova, M., Chatterji, S., Ustün, T.B., (2007). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of mental disorders in the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative. World Psychiatry. 6(3):168-76. PMID: 18188442; PMCID: PMC2174588.

6. Mathers, C. D., & Loncar, D. (2006). Projections of global mortality and burden of disease from 2002 to 2030. PLoS medicine, 3(11), e442. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030442

7. Tiller, E., Greenland, N., Christie, R., Kos, A., Brennan, N., & Di Nicola, K. (2021). Youth Survey Report 2021. Sydney, NSW: Mission Australia.

8. Wehmeyer, M.L., Kern, M.L. (2021). The Palgrave handbook of positive education. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature.

9. Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer on Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.

10. Norrish, J.M., Vella-Brodrick, D.A. (2009) Positive psychology and adolescents: Where are we now? Where to from here? Australian Psychologist. 44(4):270–8. http://doi:10.1080/00050060902914103  

11. Waters, L., Loton, D. SEARCH: A Meta-Framework and Review of the Field of Positive Education. Int J Appl Posit Psychol 4, 1–46 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41042-019-00017-4

12. Oades, L.G., Jarden, A., Hou, H., Ozturk, C., Williams, P., R. Slemp, G., Huang, L. (2021) Wellbeing Literacy: A Capability Model for Wellbeing Science and Practice. International Journal of Environ. Res. Public Health, 18, 719. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18020719

13. World Health Organization (2022). Mental Health. World Health Organization; World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response

14. Constitution of the World Health Organization, (1946). Geneva: World Health Organization. 

15. Huppert, F. A., & So, T. T. C. (2013). Flourishing across Europe: application of a new conceptual framework for defining well-being. Social Indicators Research, 110(3), 837–861. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-011-9966-7

16. Hou, T.-y., Mao, X.-f., Dong, W., Cai, W.-p., and Deng, G.-h. (2020). Prevalence of and Factors Associated with Mental Health Problems and Suicidality Among Senior High School Students in Rural China During the COVID-19 Outbreak. Asian Journal of Psychiatry. 54, 102305. http://doi:10.1016/j.ajp.2020.102305

17. Seligman, M. P., Ernst, R., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293–311. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054980902934563

18. Allison, L., Waters, L., & Kern, M. L. (2020). Flourishing classrooms: Applying a systems informed approach to positive education. Contemporary School Psychology, 2. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40688-019-00267-8

19. MTSS. What is MTSS?. PBIS Rewards. (2023). https://www.pbisrewards.com/blog/what-is-mtss/


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