Don't get swept up in the 'wellbeing whirlwind'
A more nuanced discussion is needed around how we best serve the mental health needs of students, says Sadie Hollins
Depending on where we are located around the world, some schools have returned to face-to-face teaching, some are delivering a hybrid programme, and some have started the new academic year online.
Regardless of the current mode of delivery, it’s likely that “wellbeing talk” has entered your sphere of thinking to some extent, whether personally or professionally. In a time of on-going uncertainty, compounded by the shift in recent years to a greater awareness of mental health disorders, “wellbeing” is certainly on the agenda as we start the school year.
A recent article in the THE by Kathryn Ecclestone entitled "Are universities encouraging students to believe hard study is bad for their mental health?" highlights a number of potential pitfalls of a generic focus on wellbeing that are important to discuss before heading straight into the “wellbeing whirlwind”.
We are currently in the midst of two pandemics: Covid-19, and the widely discussed “mental health crisis”, that very much feed into and off of each other. At least within the context of the UK, you don’t have to search very far to find the media-fed rhetoric that highlights the mental health "crisis’" in schools, with rising rates of mental health problems, anxiety, self-harm and suicide. This, combined with a lack of funding and services, and an overburdening of current provisions, can lead to the heightened sense of panic that something must be done…now.
"There seems to be a lack of empirically-validated guidance on how schools should address wellbeing."
A recent statement by Stefania Giannini, assistant director general for education at UNESCO, highlighted this sense of urgency earlier this year when she called for schools to focus on health and wellbeing as a priority upon re-opening. She cited a recent piece of research reporting that more than 7 out of 10 children and young people think that the pandemic is negatively affecting their mental health, with increased levels of stress, worry and anxiety.
Despite this current heightened sense of awareness around mental health, there seems to be a lack of empirically-validated guidance on how schools should address (or work towards) wellbeing in a helpful and effective manner. Instead, it feels like the translation of these admirable goals into actual school policies and practices may be problematic and vague at best.
As Ecclestone points out within the context of higher education, schools clearly need to find better ways to address an increased number of students turning to counselling services for support. However, one such problem is the conflation of "mental illness" with "problems", "difficulties" or "issues", and this can blur the distinction between serious and everyday problems. Combining this with a growing tendency to casually reference being "stressed out" or "traumatised", the phrases "wellbeing" and "mental health" can come to mean "everything and nothing" - in the words of Beth Guilding at Goldsmiths University.
"Behavioural programmes that teach students coping strategies may actually cause more harm than good."
This leads to a difficulty in teachers and counsellors being able to discern what problems require specialist support, and which instead might benefit from calm reassurance and validation of feelings that are normal under these unusual circumstances. In addition to this, behavioural programmes in schools that teach students coping strategies may actually cause more harm than good as they may not only sensitise students to uncomfortable feelings, but also lead to the pathologising of everyday difficulties and unpleasant feelings. What’s more, as Ecclestone explains, is that "evaluations of psycho-emotional interventions in schools over the past 18 years show little evidence for any discernible short-term, let alone long-term, benefits."
International schools also have the added complexity of external mental health provision possibly being difficult to find, arguably over-medicalised in certain cultures, and perhaps struggling to take into account the multicultural needs of the students that it serves.
"We need a much more nuanced debate about how we better serve and not sensitise our students."
This article is not to say that wellbeing shouldn’t be a focus, but that rather than jumping in to pre-empt or tackle head on the growing concerns around mental health in relation to the current pandemic, what is necessary is a much more nuanced debate about how we better serve (and not sensitise) our students within the communities that our schools are based in. In other words, we need to tread a fine line between addressing wellbeing, and being part of the problem of blurring the lines between everyday struggles and genuine mental illness.
Instead of better educating students about "wellbeing", we may better serve them to focus on the culture, teaching, and everyday interactions that work to help all students to be mentally "well", rather than to offer a knee-jerk "fix" that may not be either necessary, nor empirically-validated.
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