Educational approaches to enhancing mental health and wellbeing: Critical and historical perspectives on the 'therapeutic turn' in Australian government secondary schools.

Year: 2012

Author: Wright, Katie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Improving youth mental health and wellbeing has become a key educational priority in Australia, as it has elsewhere. The sense of urgency that characterises current policy commonsense is underscored by a large body of research suggesting an increasing prevalence among young people of both serious mental health disorders, and more diffuse forms of psychological and emotional distress (eg. Sawyer et al. 2007, Muir et al. 2009). Against the backdrop of increasing alarm about how young people are faring and ongoing debate about how schools can improve mental health outcomes, however, a strand of social analysis and theorising forcefully argues for more critical responses to the apparent mental health crisis facing young people today (Ecclestone and Hayes 2008; Nolan, 1998).

Internationally, discussions about the rise of 'therapy culture' as a feature of late modernity, and its purported detrimental effects - in short that it reflects a diminished view of the self and human potential (Nolan, 1998; Furedi, 2004) - have been drawn upon to make sense of and critique current educational directions (Ecclestone and Hayes, 2008). This body of work raises vitally important questions about the role of formal schooling today and the kinds of personal dispositions it seeks to foster. Just as historical studies can prompt a re-thinking of the present, conceptualizations of therapy culture offer a way of standing outside the dominant and taken-for-granted psychological worldview that pervades educational discourses, offering a critical lens on current policy and practice.

In light of current debate, on the one hand about the need for psychological interventions, and on the other about the problems of a pervasive therapeutic sensibility in the education sector, this paper begins by critically situating debates about 'therapeutic education' within the broader theorization of the 'therapeutic turn'. Drawing on two research projects currently being undertaken by the author, the paper then considers contemporary and historical approaches to student support in Australia. Tracing the early provision of guidance and counselling services to contemporary whole school approaches, this paper argues for the salience of historically situated understandings of how current approaches developed from, and are linked to, a longer history of educational strategies to support young people. In addition, the paper argues for a re-thinking of the ways in which theorization of the therapeutic turn - both in education and more broadly - draws on conceptualisations of an impoverished, diminished and vulnerable human subject.