An Australian statistic revealed that about one in five young Australians suffers from mental health problems such as depression or anxiety annually, in addition to the fact that the Corona pandemic has led to an intensification of mental health concerns among young people, according to a report published by Conversation magazine.
The report added that Australia had seen decades of investment in early intervention and treatment services not reducing rates of depression and anxiety.
This sparked more interest in what can be done to prevent mental health problems. Schools are ideal settings for prevention because large numbers of students can be reached, help build healthy skills and habits, and benefit from schools being educational and social environments.
New research, sponsored by Conversation and funded by the British charity Wellcome Trust, suggests that one of the most promising ways to prevent depression and anxiety is to ensure that students feel a strong sense of belonging and connection with their secondary school.
School Connectedness is about how well students engage with their peers and teachers and learn in the school environment. Strengthening students’ attachment to school can include things such as knowing that teachers support them, having a friend to talk to about their problems, feeling that they can be themselves at school and like the school is a fun place to be and spend their time actively participating in school activities. Being attached to school has been linked to improved academic achievement and well-being, but is currently gaining attention as a possible way to protect against depression and anxiety.
Experiences from 3 countries
In the new study, the researchers investigated whether school bonding prevents later onset of depression and anxiety in children ages 14 to 24. The study included a systematic review of 10 years of evidence examining the relationships between school bonding and depression and anxiety.
Five young counsellors aged 16-21 with lived experience of mental health problems and/or the education system in Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines were enrolled in the study.
American and Indian studies
Results from most studies revealed that higher levels of school connectedness predicted lower levels of depression and anxiety later on. For example, a US study of nearly 10,000 students found that higher levels of self-reported school connectedness included questions asked of students “Do you feel part of your school” and whether “teachers at school treat you fairly”. It was found that there was a decrease in self-reported depressive symptoms, and that the positive effect occurred later in high school and persisted into early adulthood, even when accounting for previous depressive symptoms.
Another study looked at the effect of a whole-school health promotion program in more than 5,000 secondary school students in India. The program encouraged supportive relationships among members of the school community, enhanced belonging to the school, increased participation in school activities, and enhanced social skills among students. The results of the study reported a decrease in depressive symptoms after 17 months.
Interestingly, one study reported that higher levels of attachment to school led to higher levels of internalized distress. But young counselors noted, in the Conversation study, that sometimes feeling more connected to school, with higher expectations from teachers and pressure to perform, can increase anxiety in some students.
A pivotal role for teachers
Existing research shows that there are many ‘little things’ that teachers can do throughout the day in their normal interactions with students to enhance school bonding, including actively listening to students, being there for them, communicating with them, advocating and encouraging them in their school work even if they are performing below expectations Sympathizing with the difficulties of students and treating students in humane ways.
Students are also more likely to ask for help with their learning when teachers say hello, talk to them, take an interest in what they are doing, and show that they are proud of them.
At the same time, students need to be able to express their identity safely, and to express their problems or difficulties easily.
The researchers said that the Corona pandemic and the restrictions that led to school closures and distance learning showed a different appreciation of the importance of schools for mental health and well-being.