The Importance of Wellbeing

Dr Paul Richards

How has our children’s mental health been affected by modern life, including the pandemic? ISZL’s interim High School Principal, Dr Paul Richards, has a life-long interest in mental health. Here, he sets out his manifesto for young people’s wellbeing.

 

Wellbeing - students chatting at lunch break

How has our children’s mental health been affected by modern life, including the pandemic? ISZL’s interim High School Principal, Dr Paul Richards, has a life-long interest in mental health. Here, he sets out his manifesto for young people’s wellbeing.

We are blessed to work with kind, curious, compliant, and hard-working students at ISZL. Our families believe in our mission, and support our world-class faculty and staff. The pandemic has only brought the school community closer. But it has also amplified a long-standing global concern about the mental wellbeing of our young people. 

In a recent Stanford University survey, middle and high school students reported that school absences were frequently due to mental or physical health problems associated with stress, that their average sleep on weeknights was well below the recommended 9 hours, and that grades and exams were their the top source of stress and anxiety. We have also seen these trends at ISZL. 

While our students have been able to get their daily doses of wellbeing by being back in school, learning and socialising with their friends, they are also getting their daily doses of stress, as their free time has all but evaporated.

When we refer to mental health, we mean our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel, and act, and how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices (source: MentalHealth.gov). Why is mental health important in the school context? The cases are compelling.

Students jumping in the playground

1. Mental health is part of overall health, and just as we cannot forsake our physical wellbeing, we cannot ignore our mental wellbeing without significant negative consequences (physical sickness being one of them).
 

2. A student’s happiness should be important to all of us. Happy students, who experience joy while learning, lead to greater achievement and growth, and retention of what they have learned in school.
 

3. A student who is in a good place mentally will perform at a higher level (in all aspects of school) than somebody who is not. It is intuitive. Without psychological safety or stability, learning simply cannot happen.

Thankfully, there are reasons for optimism as we navigate this pandemic. Young people are generally more resilient than adults, and we see many of our students thriving in school. We see them engaged in learning and being active again in clubs, activities, community service, and sports. 

This generation, over all others before it, is comfortable talking about their state of mental health (even if they are concerned about it). The topic is thankfully no longer taboo. Speaking openly about one’s struggles is a crucial first step toward addressing them. The majority of young people access mental health services at school over other places, and our counsellors, teachers, nurses, staff, and administrators have opened their doors for this service.

The school itself has a critical role to play in promoting mental health. It is imperative to offer high-quality learning experiences (as opposed to rote learning experiences that do not promote thinking), to foster a culture of care and kindness (where we know all of our students deeply), and perhaps most importantly, lessen the focus on grades and high-stakes exams. We have much more work to do in this respect. 

What can we as parents and adults do to support the mental fitness of our children? Fortunately, there are many behaviours and strategies that research and anecdotal evidence have shown effective:
 

  • First and foremost, listen to what your children are saying about their wellbeing and their struggle to manage their workload or social stressors. This simple act can sometimes be all they need at that moment.
  • Look for signs that something more serious may be going on, such as a disengagement from school or from friends, or a flat demeanour.
  • Monitor belonging, which is intertwined with wellbeing, ensuring your children feel they have a squad within the broader ISZL or Swiss community.
  • Avoid catastrophising mistakes or poor grades at school. We need to teach our children perspective.
  • Promote your children’s voice and agency, helping them feel that they can exert some control over their own mental wellbeing, and that they see their choices leading to success.
  • Love your children unconditionally, and let them know that whatever happens in school or in life, you will always love them.
  • Intervene to arrange professional help, such as therapy, if you feel it is warranted. Counselling can come from school, and therapy can come from local professionals, or even from online and telephone services (if waiting times for in-person services are prohibitive).
  • Finally, and this is something that turns the attention back on us, co-regulate with your children, which means navigate these difficult times together. Children learn powerful lessons about how to cope with stress through our management of our own stress. Show children how to practice gratitude, how to be compassionate, how to be vulnerable, and how to be resilient.

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