Stimulate mental health in school

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More and more young people are affected by mental health problems, so it’s essential to start discussing mental health with children.

From stress and fear of exams to eating disorders to depression – mental illnesses in children and adolescents are increasing. This is not only proven by the figures in the current child and youth report by DAK-Gesundheit. The child and adolescent psychotherapist Christoph Dinter also feel this in his Wiesbaden practice. “Corona hit young people particularly hard,” he says. “Social fears have been exacerbated by the pandemic.” This is why it seems essential to focus more on mental health in schools – but how?

Talking to children about feelings – is essential for the psychotherapist. “You should also be able to talk about your own feelings,” explains Dieter. Another tip: don’t trivialize. When a child is sad, they should ask questions rather than replying, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.” “It’s about getting through it together. About admitting that you have fears yourself. To acknowledge that it is something completely normal.”

That could have a preventive effect, as could social experiences through shared experiences. “All of this is an important part of the school alongside the pure imparting of knowledge,” says Dieter. “But my experience shows me that an incredible amount of performance is expected today, which puts pressure on the children and young people.” The time they invested in school is equivalent to a full-time job. “It is important that the class teachers create a climate of trust. So what if a student has particular difficulties, you seek dialogue.”

Selective days when mindfulness training or similar practices could be an addition or a suggestion says Dinter. “But we should actually try to live together on a daily basis what promotes mental health. Means: Responding to others, living together socially, talking about emotional states.”

New subject or project days on the topic

Stimulate mental health in school 
 - mental health
Psychische Gesundheit schon in der Schule fördern echo-online.de

In North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony, for example, there are schools where mindfulness exercises are on the timetable – to help schoolchildren to cope with stress and improve their ability to concentrate.

Another approach in Rhineland-Palatinate is offered by BEWARE, a project of the Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research (LIR) gGmbH in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. It stands for awareness, education, and resilience and aims to promote students’ mental health literacy. On annual project days, under the guidance of trained teachers, they should deal with topics related to mental health and illness in an age-appropriate manner. Prof. Dr. Michele Wessa heads the project.

“School is a great place to talk about mental health because every kid goes to school. In this way, we can reach everyone and it is possible to create openness to the topic – ultimately also in society,” explains the resilience researcher. According to Wessa, the project days should deal with questions like: How does stress arise, and how do I notice that I am currently under pressure? How do I recognize my mental health condition? And where can I seek help if I’m not feeling well? “Because of what use are all the strategies I’ve learned if I don’t even notice when I have to use this strategy in the end?” emphasizes the head of the project the hoped-for benefit.
“It is important that children learn to communicate their feelings at an early age.”

In addition, the teachers receive materials they can use during the rest of the school year, for example, in classroom lessons. “It’s about sustainability. The topic of mental health should be brought up to the students, but also to the teachers, on various levels,” explains Wessa. Another hope is that the stigmatization of people with mental health problems will decrease in the long run due to the increased student exchange on the subject. Greater openness could also help more people dare to seek help.

“It’s important that children learn early on how to communicate their feelings and that they don’t have to be ashamed,” explains Wessa. On the one hand, it is about being able to ask for help yourself. “But it’s also about learning how I react to others who have these feelings or problems – and how I can support them with my behavior in their search for help.”

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