Care in Focus for World Mental Health Day

Every 10th October the attention of the world’s media turns to mental health awareness for World Mental Health Day. With our children spending a significant portion of their childhood in education, schools and educators have an important role to play in supporting our children’s mental wellbeing.
Care in Focus for World Mental Health Day
By Jenny Mollon
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World Mental Health Day on October 10th is a chance for society to reflect upon how we care for those in our community with mental health issues.

How does this care happen within our schools? Should schools be doing more, or are our expectations of teachers too high? We spoke to Hayley Martin, Pastoral Leader at at Victory Heights Primary School (VHPS) and Psychologist Dr Sarah Rasmi, to hear their thoughts on the role that pastoral care has to play in this vital area of wellbeing and health.

VHPS is one of only a handful of standalone primary schools in Dubai, and with children attending from as young as three years old, we were intrigued to find out how the team at VHPS structure this all important aspect of school life. We began by asking Ms Martin, who has been teaching for more than 15 years, how things have changed in terms of wellbeing in schools?

“We used to talk Personal, Social and Health Education, but the focus was really on health care and physical safety. Today we have a much better understanding of the part that mental health plays in children’s well-being and how it impacts on their education.

"Teachers are now far more aware of the signs that a child is struggling with their mental health. We look for children who perhaps struggle with communication or who spend a lot of time on their own…we are also much better at identifying the children who look like they are coping and doing well, the children who don’t show the ‘big’, outward signs of mental health issues”.

What support should parents expect from their child's school when it comes to Mental Health?

“It can be difficult to know where that line lies, between school support and needing a professional like a Psychologist. For me, this is where the role of the pastoral leader comes into its own. VHPS has supported me to train for some of those roles that traditionally might have been left to a Counsellor or Psychologist.

"We think that schools need to create an excellent support network,  knowing when to reach out to professionals from other disciplines. At VHPS, we have a great working relationship with places such as The Lighthouse Arabia, as well as lots of informal networks where we share expertise with other schools.

"What is most important is that we make wellbeing a true priority in our school.”

Dr Sarah Rasmi, Psychologist and Managing Director of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai works with adults, adolescents and children as well as many Dubai schools. We began by asking her what she though the most important thing schools can do to support our children’s mental health?

"When we talk to schools, we tell them that the most important thing they can do is to promote awareness around mental health. This is vital with the increasing prevalence of mental health conditions in the world today.

"The World Health Organisation estimates that anxiety will strike one in every six people over the course of their lives, and we in the psychology profession have noticed that anxiety amongst children peaks during the school year.  Schools need to nurture wellbeing just as much as academics."

How do we know if our children’s school is good at promoting wellbeing? What should we be looking for?

"Hand in hand with awareness is the importance of creating a safe environment and clearly defined channel for children to reach out to when support is required.

"A school that nurtures wellbeing is making sure that children have access to activities that encourage the development of the whole child. Physical activity is vital, as are feelings of social connectedness.

"An 80 year-long study by Harvard University has shown that strong social relationships are the key predictor of our wellbeing. Schools can encourage this through activities and programs that emphasise collaboration, problem solving and conflict resolution."

For teachers reading this feature, what are some simple steps they can encourage their school leaders to take to support children with mental health issues?

"Teachers need to be aware of what to look out for. They don’t necessarily have to be formally trained, they can simply be aware of some basic signs of mental health issues.

"Schools can help to equip them with this knowledge by partnering with organisations like Thrive, we can train teachers to identify things like depression and anxiety, the most common mental health challenges that people face.  We also go into schools as a pro-bono community service to help raise awareness for pupils, staff and parents.

"Lastly, it so important that schools prioritise the wellbeing of their staff, as well all the people that children interact with. The KHDA has really gotten behind this in recent years with their Teacher Wellbeing Census, and that’s been a great step forward."

What is your school doing to champion Mental Health awareness?  Tag us in your pictures on Facebook or Instagram - @whichschooladvisor

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