Hopes Australian-first mental health literacy course can help kids nationwide

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In a classroom at Padua College on the outskirts of Melbourne, Monash University mental health experts, not teachers, are taking today’s lesson.

Over 10 weeks, these students are taught mental health literacy with the aim of equipping them to navigate the mental health problems affecting as many as four in 10 students.

“The numbers are quite high and all young people who experience psychological distress do need to seek support and treatment, but there are barriers to them seeking that help,” said Alexandra Marinucci, a psychologist and PhD candidate at Monash university.

That’s what mental health literacy hopes to address: students are taught how to identify if they or a friend could be struggling, how to access help and reduce stigma.

It is the first time the course, adapted from the US, has been taught and evaluated in Australian schools. If the results are good, researchers hope it will quickly go national as it has in North America.

“It’s shocking that we don’t have this embedded in our curriculum nationally or even as a program at schools across Australia. It definitely needs to be a priority coming out of the pandemic,” said Christine Grove, who is supervising the project.

Kids learning it’s ‘OK to not be OK’

The course is designed to be practical and accessible, so today students are making coping boxes that they can turn to when things are tough.

Some decorate them with diamantés, for others its about what’s inside.

“I’ve put my family’s name. I’ve put my siblings’ [names]. I’ve put my mum there. I’ve just put things that I really like,” year 9 student Toby Bryant said.

A small white box is decorated with diamontes, stickers of smiley faces, and the words "coping box".
Students are making coping boxes that they can turn to when things are tough.(ABC News: Peter Drought)

His classmate Isabella Potter is excited about her tool kit.

“The box is for when you’re stressed or you just need to get your mind off something. There’s things like playdough in there to just distract yourself from what’s happening,” she said.

Importantly, she now feels ready to help a friend in need.

“Kids don’t know how to feel about it and how to talk to people about it when they need to learn that it’s OK to not be OK,” she said.

Alexandra Marinucci and Christine Grove wearing smart business casual clothing and smiling in a portrait.
Alexandra Marinucci and Christine Grove say students’ mental health needs to be a priority.(ABC News: Peter Drought)

There’s good evidence that early treatment and prevention leads to better mental health as an adult, and Ms Marinucci hopes her PhD will replicate the same positive results in studies overseas.

“We need to develop a proactive and preventative approach to mental health rather than reacting to crises,” she said.

Mental health literacy is a relatively new concept that has been around for 25 years. In recent years it has gathered momentum overseas, with peer-reviewed research validating its effectiveness in schools.

Without that evidence in Australia it is harder to make the case for the program, but Ms Marinucci hopes her Australian-first study will convince education departments it is essential.

Getting help and moving on

Zali Lawrence, 13, realised she was struggling with her mental health as she made the transition into high school.

“I guess I just had a couple of friendship issues where people were talking about me in not very nice ways and a picture of me had kind of been spread around,” she said.

Today she’s back enjoying her interests and plays club as well as representative netball.

She credits therapy with a psychologist and the mental health literacy program.

“I noticed my mood feel a lot happier. I wasn’t as down and upset. And I was just feeling a lot better overall,” Zali said.

Tough times around the world and country

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What is anxiety and how is it treated?

Right now it can seem like there’s no let-up to bad news, with war and floods following the pandemic.

Some parents may wish to shield their children completely from the news, but Dr Grove has warned against that.

“Often what we might see parents do is try and avoid those conversations and thinking not talking about it or just leaving it might be helpful,” Dr Grove said.

“But we know the unspoken word on these topics can be more damaging or more unhelpful for young people because they often will fill in the gaps or go online to find answers. And often that’s inaccurate information.”

Sam Wright speaking to two students holding white "coping boxes" on a table outdoors.
Vice-principal Sam Wright says anything that promotes positive mental health can help.(ABC News: Peter Drought)

That search for answers can be dangerous, as young people can be particularly vulnerable to traumatic images in news and on social media.

The good news is parents don’t have to prepare for the conversation without help.

“The Parenting Research Centre [has] brilliant resources that are all evidence-based that they can access online to help have these conversations. They also have direct sentences that you can say if you sort of get tongue twisted,” Dr Grove said.

Have the conversation and stop hiding tragedy

A portrait of Yasmin Toy, wearing a formal school jacket and smiling.
Yasmin Toy says normalising talking about mental health is important.(ABC News: Peter Drought)

Back at Padua College, vice-principal Sam Wright is a champion of the mental health literacy program and for tackling mental health head on.

“Youth suicide is a massive scourge on the community and so whatever we do in regards to promoting positive mental health and help-seeking behaviours helps,” Mr Wright said.

That determination is being picked up by the school’s student leaders, who are creating their own healthier future.

“It’s a very taboo topic and we are the future generation and leaders of tomorrow,” 15-year-old Yasmin Toy said.

“So bringing forth these topics to learn about and normalise can only better not only our understanding at this moment in time but for the future of Australia.”

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