Gumboot Friday 2019: The role of teachers and schools in promoting mental health and wellbeing

Dr Jenny Robertson, University of Waikato / NZ Health Education Association

Notions of wellbeing are currently becoming common focuses across many sectors, including education. This raises a number of questions about the role of teachers and schools and about the effectiveness of our efforts:

  • Is the well-intended action schools engage in around ‘promoting mental health and wellbeing’ having any impact on student wellbeing outcomes?
  • And importantly, how do we know this?
  • Or do we just feel good that we have drawn attention to some of the important issues impacting the lives of young people?

To answer these questions, I think we need to know three things:

  • What ‘mental health and wellbeing’ actually means in the first place;
  • What is realistic given the limitations of the mandate for the education sector; and
  • What resources are available that support both the promotion of mental health and wellbeing and our core business – which is teaching and learning.

This post helps explore these questions and contains numerous hyperlinks to useful readings, resources, and policy documents.

Mental health and wellbeing – not as simple as they seem

Defining (mental) ‘health’ and ‘wellbeing’ takes researchers and practitioners on a merry dance, given the many slippery, changing meanings and uses of these terms. For example, sometimes the focus for ‘mental health and wellbeing promotion’ events is actually mental illness. Gumboot Friday is an example of this. It may still be a very useful initiative with important activities that aim to raise awareness, reduce stigma, highlight ways of helping, and identify organisations that support people with (clinical) depression – but, at the same time, does this type of effort perpetuate the understanding that mental health (promotion) is only about supporting those with mental illness? What about the promotion of mental health and wellbeing for all?

In the New Zealand education context, understandings of health and wellbeing usually reference Mason Durie’s Whare Tapa Whā model of hauora, taking the lead from the 1997 and 2007 HPE national curriculum. The New Zealand Curriculum for English-medium teaching and learning states that:

In health and physical education, the focus is on the well-being of the students themselves, of other people, and of society.”

In Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, the parallel learning area statement reads:

“This learning area provides students with access to the world of hauora. Students will have opportunities to learn about total health and wellbeing of spirit, mind, body, and heart, as well as environmental health.”

The concept of hauora, with its holistic focus on physical, social, mental and emotional, and spiritual dimensions, has much usefulness and local relevance, and both the above curriculum statements support the idea that wellbeing and hauora are bigger than just avoiding mental illness. However, the broad nature of the concept of hauora may detract from the objectives of mental health promotion if the specific nature of mental and emotional wellbeing is not given some further explanation.

Other explanations are useful for exploring the scope of mental health and wellbeing. For example, the World Health Organisation defines mental health as:

“a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.  

Similar ideas feature in the NZ Mental Health Foundation’s definition, which states that mental health is:

“the capacity to feel, think and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual wellbeing that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice and personal dignity.”

Therefore, mental health and wellbeing refer to more than just the absence of mental illness. This means that promoting mental health and wellbeing includes any actions that can be taken to achieve these broader goals – and is not limited to those with mental health issues.

The role of schools in promoting mental health and wellbeing

NZ education documentation includes considerations of wellbeing in a number of places. National Administration Guideline 5 still requires each public, state-integrated and private school’s board of trustees to “provide a safe physical and emotional environment for students.” Wellbeing as an achievement challenge is becoming popular in Communities of Learning/Kahui Ako. The Education Review Office and the New Zealand Council for Education Research have also been active in the wellbeing space with a range of reports and resources being made available in recent years (e.g. see here, here, and here).

One helpful tool for understanding what might be possible through a whole school approach to promoting wellbeing is the promoting and responding triangle (shown below). This approach describes how ALL students can engage in learning and activities that promote wellbeing (mainly prevention), how SOME students can be supported at school with early intervention support for wellbeing concerns, and how a FEW students need to be linked with specialist services in the community for more serious issues.

Capture 2.JPG
The promoting and responding triangle (source)

The role of teachers in promoting mental health and wellbeing

The Commitment to Learners section of the Code of Professional Responsibility within Our Code, Our Standards states that teachers must “promote the wellbeing of learners and protect them from harm”. What does this mean? Or, first, what doesn’t this mean?

Education leaders and teachers, with the exception of the school counsellor, are not (mental) health professionals. They don’t have the qualifications, professional authority, or codes of professional practice to be able to counsel – much less diagnose and treat – young people with (mental) health problems. The effectiveness of schooling is not measured on reduced rates of mental illness; measures of success in schools are about outcomes for students as learners, not patients.

It is also important to remember that health is not only an individual consideration. For example, if we use the socioecological perspective that underpins the Health and Physical Education learning area in the NZC, we are reminded that we must consider the ways health and wellbeing are impacted by families, peers, and the wider social determinants of health (a complex interplay of political, economic and cultural factors).

What it does mean for leaders and teachers to promote wellbeing is woven across many policy and resource documents, including:

There are also clear guidelines on what, specifically, we should teach in the area of mental health and wellbeing. Since the 2007 HPE curriculum statement, mental health as a context for curriculum learning has included a substantial focus on strength building and resilience. Although the Hauora learning area in Te Marautanga o Aotearoa was conceptualised differently to the English-medium HPE (and was not simply translated from the NZC), the four Hauora strands in TMOA – Te Wairua, Customs, Practices and Protocols, Te Reo Māori, and Values and Attitudes – seek to affirm and support unique Māori views of the world.

Teachers of health education, like all teachers, judge their teaching effectiveness in terms of the learning outcomes achieved by all of their learners. Teaching linked to the mental health key area of learning or to the Hauora strands in TMOA is no exception. As with all other curriculum subject matter, we must remember that the outcomes of learning are knowledge, skills and understanding that can be achieved by all learners – not observations of (health) behavioural outcomes of individuals whose wellbeing may be compromised for reasons beyond the control of schools.

The need for evidence related to our mental health and wellbeing efforts

Schools have the responsibility to engage in ongoing inquiry-based approaches to review existing practices – and the responsibility make changes where evidence shows that improved outcomes need to be achieved. These responsibilities are just as applicable in the area of mental health and wellbeing promotion as they are in areas like literacy achievement or student attendance. School-wide evaluation and inquiry processes related to wellbeing can be driven by questions such as:

  • Is what we are doing to promote and respond to student wellbeing working?
  • Is it good enough?
  • How do we know?
  • Can we do better?

These can then be unpacked into more specific questions that could feature in an inquiry process. Any such inquiry will need to incorporate understanding of:

  • What wellbeing means in schooling contexts;
  • What (as a matter of policy) is the responsibility of schools around the promotion of wellbeing (and in which situations other sectors need to step in);
  • Which data can be ethically collected in education settings to decide the actions that can, and need to, be implemented to affect change; and
  • Which data is needed to show evidence of impact.

Looking ahead

This is complex work. Really complex.

As we are presented with ever more data about the state of NZ and the world’s mental health, and especially the mental health of young people, schools will continue to be seen as strategic sites for health promotion.

However, schools often juggle conflicting agendas when creating inclusive environments that support the wellbeing of all learners, adding yet more complexity to the situation. Here are just two examples of these tensions:

  • when seeking to eliminate racism and xenophobia, tensions can be created due to the conservative religious beliefs of some members of school communities around sex, sexuality, and gender identities;
  • although the digital environment is considered essential for 21st century learning, when it is used uncritically and irresponsibly (especially social media), the digital environment is creating major mental health concerns related to people’s sense of self-worth and self-acceptance.

It would seem that so much of what schools (need to) do at present in the name of wellbeing actually involves reacting to and ‘raising awareness’ about existing problems. We are forever trying to reduce risk and damage, after the fact.

The idea that schools should collect data to use as evidence to identify which school practices need to change, and show that their actions to promote student wellbeing are having a positive impact, is relatively new to many schools.  However, until the promotion of student wellbeing is woven into the fabric of NZ schooling, it would seem that well intended campaigns that last only for a single day or week on the school calendar, when some interest group has their moment, may be what we’re stuck with.

headshot JRobertson.jpgDr Jenny Robertson is currently a teaching fellow in the initial teacher education programme (health education) at the University of Waikato. She was a writer for the Health and Physical Education learning area in the New Zealand Curriculum and has developed numerous resources to support teachers of health education. She is also a professional learning and development facilitator supporting schools to improve outcomes for all learners by developing teaching and leadership capabilities in curriculum design and implementation, and whole school approaches to promoting wellbeing.


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