A national survey of Australian secondary school students aged between 15 and 19 years found that one in four students had a probable serious mental illness. The findings are not new, nothing much has changed in the last ten years. In addition, according to the survey:
- 6% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students met the criteria for probable serious mental illness;
- Female students were almost twice as likely as male students to meet the criteria for having a serious mental illness; and
- 35% of 17 to 25 year old students were experiencing self-harm or suicidal thoughts.
The Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing reported 13.9% of 4 to 17 year olds were assessed as having mental disorders, including major depressive disorder. Compounding this problem, the prevalence of bullying in Australian schools is high, with 27% of students aged 8 to 14 reporting that they were bullied. Our rates for both these issues have been relatively stable over the last decade, suggesting that mental health and wellbeing are not improving.
So, what can we do about it?
A range of policy-level initiatives have led to funding for a range of programmes and services that target young people’s mental health and wellbeing, such as Headspace, the KidsMatter Primary programme and MindMatters.
But what about school-level ideas?
How can schools make a difference to student mental health and wellbeing –and what is realistic now,in the context of existing staffing, funding, policies and requirements?
Our research on school climate: one way schools can contribute
Our research centres on measuring socio-emotional school and classroom climates, and investigating how these climates affect students’ experiences and outcomes. As part of this work, we recently published a systematic literature review in which we examined over 550 past studies and synthesised the 48 studies that directly linked school climate with students’mental health and wellbeing.
96% of the studies we examined found evidence of associations between the school climate and students’mental health and wellbeing. In most cases, the research designs mean that we can’t be sure that it was the school climate that directly caused the student outcomes –but the consistent pattern of associations found in almost all of the studies nonetheless indicates that there are important links between the school climate and students’mental health and wellbeing. Since school climate is “malleable” and can be deliberately modified, it may be a useful lever for promoting positive mental health and wellbeing among students.
Our analysis identified four key aspects of the school climate that are associated with students’mental health and wellbeing. We suggest that by considering these four aspects, schools can take manageable steps to promote an environment that supports student mental health and wellbeing.
- Social connectedness / relationships: When students had positive relationships with both their peers and their teachers, they reported better psychosocial wellbeing, more positive / pro-social behaviours, fewer mental health issues, and fewer delinquent or risk behaviours. Aspects contributing to this sense of social connectedness included: positive peer relationships, peer support, an absence of bullying, teacher support, positive relationships with teachers, teachers’regard for students’perspectives, a democratic school environment in which students are given autonomy and voice, and respect and trust between all members of the school community.
- School safety: When students felt that their school was a safe environment, they reported better psychosocial wellbeing, more positive / pro-social behaviours, fewer mental health issues, and fewer delinquent or risk behaviours. Aspects contributing to students’sense of school safety included: school safety policies, rule clarity, rule enforcement, mechanisms for reporting and seeking help, and typical behaviour patterns at the school. It is important to note that teachers, parents and students all tend to have different views about how safe a school is, meaning that we should be cautious in making assumptions about how our students might feel about the school.
- School connectedness: When students felt a sense of connection to their school, they reported better psychosocial wellbeing, more positive / pro-social behaviours, fewer mental health issues, and fewer delinquent or risk behaviours. Aspects contributing to students’sense of school connectedness included their feelings of belonging at school, their loyalty or attachment to the school, a positive school community, and positive attitudes and practices to affirm diversity.
- Academic environment: When students experienced an academic environment that was characterised by high demands and pressure, they reported increased mental health issues and delinquent or risk behaviours. Aspects contributing to high-pressure academic environments included perceived academic demands at the school, a competitive school or classroom culture, an imbalance between academic efforts (what is required of students to meet expectations) and rewards (the outcomes students experience such as grades, praise, and opportunities), and a focus on academic outcomes without attention to social, emotional, and motivational influences.
Ways to make a change
The Melbourne Declaration makes clear that one of the educational goals for young Australians is for students to be able to manage their emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing. The Australian government also recognises the important role that schools play in the wellbeing of our youth. Although wellbeing is explicitly incorporated in the health and physical education learning area of the National Curriculum, we believe attention to mental health and wellbeing should be much broader than this.
To promote student wellbeing, the Australian government has developed the National Safe Schools Framework which provides schools with a vision and ‘a set of guiding principles to develop positive and practical student safety and wellbeing policies’. To support the National Safe Schools Framework, the government has made available the Student Wellbeing Hub which provides a range of resources for educators, parents and students.
Overall, our recent literature review contributes to the growing body of evidence showing that what schools do every day matters for student mental health and wellbeing.Our school climates are not neutral –they have important links to our students’experiences and so it is important for teachers, school leaders, school trustees and policy makers to consider the nature of our current climates and how these can be improved over time. This is one way that we can take better and better care of our youth.
Jill Aldridge is an associate professor at Curtin University, Western Australia. Her central research interests focus on the development of effective, inclusive learning environments at the school and classroom levels. Her research has examined the effects, determinants and outcomes of the school and classroom climate in national, international and cross-cultural settings involving a range of research methods.
Katrina McChesney completed her PhD in 2017 under the supervision of Dr Aldridge, focusing on teachers’ experiences of professional development. She has also contributed to a number of Dr Aldridge’s research and professional development projects related to school climate and its impact on student outcomes. Katrina is currently a Research Officer for Massey University, New Zealand