13/11/2019 - 09:16

Maximising student wellbeing

13/11/2019 - 09:16


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A suggestion by the Productivity Commission that Australia should employ wellbeing leaders to oversee mental health policy has raised debate over how schools can best approach mental health.

Donella Beare believes it’s important that student wellbeing programs are aligned with a school’s culture. Photo: St Stephen’s School

A suggestion by the Productivity Commission that Australia should employ wellbeing leaders to oversee mental health policy has raised debate over how schools can best approach mental health.

Published last month, a Productivity Commission report says the nation’s mental health system has not kept pace with the public’s needs, with current systems better designed to treat physical illnesses rather than mental afflictions.

Estimating that mental health issues cost the Australian economy between $43 billion and $51 billion per annum, the report highlights the need to focus on early intervention, emphasising that long-term mental wellbeing was often determined from an early age.

The commission subsequently recommended that state governments begin reviewing which schools would most require the resources needed to employ a wellbeing leader, with a goal to have every school in Australia employing a leader to coordinate mental health policies within the next five years.

For their part, the state and federal governments already provide funding for narrower services, with Western Australia receiving $31 million over four years as part of the Department of Education’s National School Chaplaincy Program.

The Commission’s recommendation has led leaders in the field to question the practicality of wellbeing leaders in schools.

Tarryn Harvey, chief executive of Western Australia Association for Mental Health, said while addressing children’s mental health was important, wellbeing leaders were an unsuitability broad solution, and that attention needed to be paid to the social determinants of mental ill-health.

“What’s happening for these kids that means wellbeing issues are emerging as strongly as they are?” she asked.

“I’m not sure that having wellbeing leaders in schools is the answer to that question.”

Associate professor and principal researcher at the University of Western Australia’s graduate school of education, David Lawrence, echoed these concerns.

While Professor Lawrence said he was pleased to see the commission recognise the importance of children’s mental wellbeing, he said schools would benefit from a culture of wellbeing rather than wellbeing leaders.

“It’s a positive thing for schools to have someone who has an appropriate level of skills and training to take on a role that might be a wellbeing coordinator,” Professor Lawrence said.

“It’s also important that schools have the resources and opportunities to be able to have a whole-of-school wellbeing strategy and program in place.

“It’s not just about having one person who has responsibility for that as an issue, but the ability for that person to be able to create a culture of wellbeing across a school.”

St Stephen’s School principal Donella Beare made a similar argument, telling Business News that though the Commission’s idea was well intentioned, the management of these programs was better left to schools.

As an example, she cited the effectiveness of her school’s care program, a holistic grouping of psychologists, nurses and other school leaders focused on attending to students’ emotional and mental wellbeing.

“That’s the team that works, supports students and sometimes their families in dealing with the struggles they deal with,” Ms Beare said.

That program has been successful because it was aligned with the school’s values and culture, she said, and suggested it was instructive of how schools could approach the wellbeing of its students.

“It has to be embedded into a school’s way of operation,” Ms Beare said.

“It can’t just be ad-hoc, someone coming in to deliver a program, but not being supportive in the overall strategic direction.”


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