The area of wellbeing and emotional literacy has come to the fore in recent years as mental health issues among our youth continue to rise. This was highlighted in a study carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI) in 2013 as 1 in 5 young Irish adults aged 19-24 and one in 6 young people aged 11-13 who took part in the study were experiencing mental health problems at the time.
The ‘My World’ survey completed in 2012 maps the mental health experience of 14,000 Irish adolescents and young people aged between 14 and 25. Key findings from the report highlighted that mental health difficulties emerged in early adolescence and peaked in the late teens and early 20’s. There is a strong international base demonstrating that developing life-skills in school based programmes can help to reduce and prevent mental health difficulties when used in a whole school context. It must also be acknowledged however that many of the factors that shape and affect the wellbeing of a student lie beyond the reach and influence of schools.
In 2015, promoting the health and wellbeing of young people was firmly placed at the core of the new Junior Cycle. This includes learning opportunities to enhance the physical, mental, emotional and social wellbeing of students. The wellbeing programme will see 300 hours of timetabled learning over the three years of the junior cycle, building up to 400 hours by 2020.
The four main pillars of the programme are Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE), Physical Education (PE), Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and guidance related education appropriate to the needs of the school. Even though this initiative may be bandied about in the media as a new area of learning, this is not entirely true.
Since the 1970’s an array of approaches in many schools towards the delivery of health education was employed. One of the earliest formal approaches was a life - skills programme providing students with skills to make positive health choices. SPHE was approved as a mandatory subject for the Junior Cycle in April 2000. In fact Guidance Counsellors, Pastoral Care Teams, Year heads and tutor systems have been working for years towards the wellbeing of students. Many schools are already running mental health weeks, friendship weeks and initiatives to enhance the awareness and mental wellbeing of their students. It is a progressive step now that work already taking place and the new initiatives for mental health promotion in schools are being brought together under the umbrella of Wellbeing.
Mental health education through schools has been an important goal of many International bodies, including WHO, UNESCO and UNICEF. The WHO held its first international conference in 1986 and produced what became known as the Ottawa charter. Schools were identified as an important setting for health promotion and the health promoting schools approach was built on the principles of this charter. In 2002, UNESCO sent a worldwide initiative to promote social and emotional learning, sending a statement of ten basic principles. What has changed for the better is that now all stakeholders will be working under a more unified approach with specific training days from the department so that we have common goal and indicators to work towards.
Unfortunately in 2012 the then government removed the protected hours available for Guidance Counselling leaving many schools with no option but to cut their Guidance Counselling hours. One of the key actions outlined in the Action Plan for Education 2016-2020, involves increasing the take up of Mental Health Programmes and strengthening Guidance Counselling. If we are serious about schools being able to support wellbeing, the value of full-time Guidance Counsellors in schools, who have the time and expertise to support students in crisis on a one to one, should not be underestimated. We would hope in light of present aims of the Department of Education and Skills that a full reinstatement of these hours are now on the table.