Why schools should pay more attention to students’ mental health and well-being

by Anna Choi 
Analyst, Economist/Analyst at CFE/LESI (Local employment, skills, and social innovation)



The notion of well-being and happiness has increasingly taken centre stage in our societies over the recent years. As Nobel Prize Economist Daniel Kahneman puts it, "there is a huge wave of interest in happiness among researchers. There is a lot of happiness coaching. Everybody would like to make people happier."

In addition to physical health, it has become clear that emotional health is vital for our overall well-being. Children who are in a good state of emotional well-being have higher odds of growing into adults who are happy, confident, and enjoy healthy lifestyles, consequently contributing towards a better society and improving the overall well-being of the population.

Perhaps this emphasis on well-being may reflect the increasing prevalence of emotional ill-being and mental health problems. Across OECD countries, almost one in four adults report experiencing more anger, worry and sadness than enjoyment, restedness and smiling or laughter every day. What is more alarming is that around 10-20% of children and adolescents around the world suffer from mental health problems, and an increasing number of children and adolescents have reported experiencing anxiety, depression, and difficulties sleeping over the recent decades. Emotional well-being during childhood and adolescence is particularly important as nearly one in two mental health problems among adults begin by age 14. A just released Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looks at this in more detail.

Given the importance of emotional well-being in early life, these trends are quite worrying for researchers, policy makers, teachers, and parents worldwide. This is perhaps reflected in the fact that schools and education systems around the world are increasingly concerned with their students' well-being. Since children and adolescents spend most of their time in schools, their learning environments can have a significant impact on their emotional well-being, in addition to the things they experience outside of school.
Schools and education systems around the world are increasingly concerned with their students' well-being.

Different factors can be conducive or detrimental to students' well-being, and many of these factors are interrelated. Stable emotional support and positive relationships with parents can act as a protective buffer during difficulties in life such as chronic stress, exposure to bullying, anxiety, and depression. Similarly, happier students tend to report having good relationships with their teachers, and those who receive high levels of support from their teachers tend to handle stress better at school. Outside of school, engaging in other activities such as volunteering can help foster co-operation and interpersonal trust. Socialising with friends outside of school is also positively associated with life satisfaction, sense of belonging at school, happiness and self-esteem.

While it is difficult to isolate a single winning strategy to enhance children’s and adolescents' emotional well-being, effective prevention programmes for depression, anxiety and suicide tend to all have something in common at their core: cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). The behavioural component within CBT focuses on coping strategies, social problem-solving skills, and interpersonal relationships, as well as the cognitive component involved in helping adolescents identify and gain control over thought processes and patterns in order to be more optimistic.  Similarly, CBT programmes targeted towards lowering anxiety have a related behavioural component that helps participants block avoidance behaviour, and a cognitive therapy component that emphasises the monitoring of feelings and behaviours and efforts towards cognitive restructuring to change anxious thoughts and processes.

It is important to involve and collaborate with different actors—schools, teachers, and parents—to improve the effectiveness of different prevention programs and thus enhance children’s and adolescents’ well-being. An open line of communication between teachers and parents can raise the awareness of the problem as some children may be reluctant to openly discuss the challenges and emotional difficulties they are going through, whether it be depression, anxiety, or bullying. It is also important to provide support and training to teachers and parents to monitor and detect children's symptoms and behaviours early on (including depression, bullying, chronic stress, and other behavioural problems).

If not properly addressed, issues of mental health and well-being may not only impact individuals at the school level, but also have far-reaching effects on the society at large.

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