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Cultivating mental health literacy for a better safety barrier in schools

Michelle Chan
Educational Psychologist
 
     In the blink of an eye, 2022 has arrived. We thank school personnel, parents and stakeholders of various sectors for showing concern and working for students’ mental health over the past year. As gatekeepers of children’s well-being, they have closely collaborated with us in different positions to enhance students’ resilience, identify students with emotional problems at an early stage, and help students face the challenges ahead with a positive attitude.

Preventing rather than treating mental problems

     Each year, schools are busy with examinations in January and February, and this is the time students are likely to feel greater pressure of study. They may be overwhelmed with severe anxiety and disappointment if they fail to manage emotions that arise from unsatisfactory academic performance. We urge schools to keep a close watch on students’ behaviours and improve their mental health from the following perspectives. Where necessary, students should be provided with appropriate guidance and follow-up support immediately.

     Teachers and parents should help students understand that things do not always turn out as expected and we have to live with pressure, and that it is imperative for students to find their own ways to release emotions and prevent negative emotions from accumulating. Studies have revealed that sufficient sleep is crucial to learning, memory and emotional stability. Meanwhile, more physical exercises and appropriate leisure activities help one stay positive and relieve stress. Students should ensure that they get enough sleep during examination periods, engage in regular healthy activities and take good care of their mental health. This is particularly important when classes resume after a long holiday and when examination results are about to be released. Schools can visit the MentalHealth@School website (www.mentalhealth.edb.gov.hk) for resources on self-care tips, how to prepare for examinations and respond to examination results, etc. Where appropriate, such resources should be disseminated to students and parents as practical reminders on mental health promotion.

Detecting signals of mental illness and helping students in need

     Mental illness is one of the key risk factors causing student suicide. It is during adolescence that many people display initial signs of mental illness. According to studies, early identification and intervention can significantly enhance the effectiveness of treatments. However, owing to inadequate mental health literacy, many students have delayed seeking medical advice for periods as long as a few months to several years. In some cases, emotional problems may cause skin problems, sleep disturbances, digestive discomfort or pain, etc. If students or people around them lack an awareness of mental illness symptoms, failure to detect signs at an early stage and arrange timely treatment may result. Teachers can learn more about the signs of mental illness by making reference to the Teacher’s Resource Handbook on Understanding and Supporting Students with Mental Illness available on the MentalHealth@School website. This will enable them to identify and support students in need and make referrals at an early stage.

Immediate attention brings greater effectiveness

     It is essential to develop good rapport with students in daily interactions so that those who suffer from emotional distress are willing to turn to us for help. In fact, it will be easier to recognise their needs for mental health support if we understand their daily temperament. Teachers and parents may from time to time express their care for students through little tricks, and engage students in conversations or activities to foster bonding. They can help students understand that when experiencing signs of mental health problems such as insomnia, poor concentration, declining learning effectiveness, a loss of interest in things and fluctuations in mood, one should not shy away from letting others know and wait until the problems disappear naturally. Instead, students should draw the immediate attention of appropriate adults, such as teachers, school social workers or parents. Without early intervention or treatment, a small mental health problem could snowball, and this may have a bearing on the duration and effectiveness of treatment. When approached by emotional distressed students for help, teachers and parents should, first and foremost, keep an open mind and listen to them patiently without passing judgement, and show their care and acceptance at an opportune time. They should assist students in identifying ways teachers, family and friends can be of help and effective self-help methods for soothing their mind. If necessary, teachers and parents should advise students to secure professional support.

Enhancing protection with better gatekeeping

     To equip parents and teachers with better knowledge and skills of gatekeeping, the Education Bureau (EDB) has prepared pamphlets on symptoms of depression, anxiety disorder, selective mutism and Tourette syndrome, and relevant support strategies to enhance the mental health literacy of parents and teachers. A factsheet has also been prepared to increase parents’ understanding of youth suicides. The pamphlets and factsheet are both available on the MentalHealth@School website for download by parents and school personnel. In addition, the EDB has collaborated with schools and different sectors (including university academics, police negotiators and the Social Welfare Department) in organising various school-based, district-based and territory-wide seminars or workshops on “Prevention of Student Suicide and Student Mental Health Support”, with a view to examining the observations of studies on student suicides, ways to identify and support students with suicidal risks, and strategies of immediate intervention for suicidal behaviours. The seminars and workshops were well received. More than 1 750 primary and secondary school principals, counselling teachers and school social workers joined the two seminars held in November 2021. Earlier on, the EDB also organised four workshops on “School Crisis Management – Aftermath Intervention and Psychological Support” to enhance training for school personnel on intervention and support services for affected students and teachers in the aftermath of crises. These workshops attracted an attendance of around 400 school personnel.

     In the new year, we will continue the above training and support work. With love and care, let us join hands to safeguard children’s mental health and help them thrive and get stronger.

2 January 2022