Student Wellbeing and Mental Health

By Maria Doyle, ICP Life Member, Student Leaders Forum Facilitator and the Student Leaders Forum: Tomás Fernández Durruty (Argentina), Ximena Fernández Durruty (Argentina), Emma Durocher (Canada), Angel Baraza (Kenya), Barbara Muiga (Kenya), Travis Wandah Ulbricht (Kenya), Alester Abega (Kenya), Alyssa Grigor (New Zealand), Amy Ang En (Singapore), Shridhar Raj (Singapore)

Members of the ICP Student Leaders Forum, composed of student representatives from across the globe, held a facilitated virtual meeting on March 17th 2024 to discuss student wellbeing and mental health. 

The outcomes from this dynamic meeting have been correlated into a position document which we now present to the ICP Executive for their attention and consideration. 

Discussion point 1.

‘Why is student Mental Health & Wellbeing such a topical area for discussion now – is it a new phenomenon or have these concerns been with us for some considerable time?’

Responses:

  • Students have been given a safer and more meaningful platform to speak and to have their opinions valued and heard. The issues are not a new phenomenon, and students have not become ‘soft’, but students are now showing courage and naming their significant stressors in an effort to find solutions and a healthier way forward.
  • There is definitely a greater awareness and global conscience around what is impacting students’ learning experiences and a greater willingness on the part of school leaders to take student opinions seriously. 
  • The pandemic accentuated feelings of student isolation and highlighted mental health issues. The intensity of the experience resulted in many students never returning to ‘face to face’ learning. 
  • On a positive note, the pandemic also facilitated a closer relationship between school leaders and students – bonded together through a common determination to find a new way of communicating and learning together. Students were allowed to express themselves in a more meaningful way with a newfound partnership with their teachers/principals. 
  • Social media has in many ways broken down the barrier of mental health taboos by allowing more open and transparent discussions to take place. Testimony from many high profile individuals about mental health struggles has made it easier for students to be honest and admit their struggles. It has also given greater access to research around the area of mental health and wellbeing. Social media has also given students the language to articulate their feelings and anxieties. 
  • Social media has also contributed to mental health issues among students as there is now no escape from it. The urgency to respond immediately is a significant stressor and students have no ‘down time’. Where bullying is happening at school, it no longer stops at the school gate but the cycle continues online at home. 
  • The inclusion of mental health and wellbeing topics in exam questions is a very positive development allowing students to reflect and respond in an honest and safe way. 
  • The perception that boys must not express true emotions and repress their feelings has contributed to an alarming rise in suicide rates among males. It is not emasculating for boys to be vulnerable and this message needs to be constantly reinforced in a world where strength and power are celebrated.

What are the significant stressors?

  • Academic pressures – including overloaded timetables and the expectation that the ‘good’ student must be involved in so many areas of school life.
  • Concentrated curricula with over emphasis on traditional academic subjects with little regard for the arts and more creative areas. Students need and deserve to have all areas of their potential nourished and encouraged as not all students will take the same pathways in adult life. 
  • Parental pressure and expectation. This can be detrimental to students as they do not want to disappoint yet they know their own limitations. Parents are often pressured by other parents – comparing their children and having unrealistic expectations. This prompts a vicious cycle where parents become demanding of teachers to ensure their children maintain ‘high grades’. This is where teachers need to be leaders and break the cycle damaging students and impacting their welfare. Teachers must in fact educate the parents to be more realistic in their aspirations. 
  • Peer pressure. Students don’t want to be different from their social circle and yet they can be adversely influenced by them to the detriment of their mental health. Students need to appreciate that it is not necessary to have the best grades, the latest clothes or the most interesting social life to be included. Pick your circle of friends carefully and wisely.
  • Social media – a force for good and evil.

What can we do to improve student mental health and wellbeing?

  • Listen to students as they really want to be heard. Allow safe spaces and adequate time for open and honest discussion regarding their concerns and fears. 
  • Educate parents about the negative impact of pressuring their children. Show parents that there are many pathways available to students once they complete their formal education – all equally valuable and rewarding.
  • Teach students about having a good work life balance and encourage them to nourish and nourish their bodies to support positive mental health. Students are not machines and need quality down time  – including healthy sleep. 
  • Actively prioritise good time management .
  • Parents must encourage their children to sing, dance and socialise in a healthy way and not overemphasise academia.
  • Encourage healthy eating and nutrition – making time to sit and eat appropriately without interruption. 
  • Slow down ‘we are your kids and we need you to advocate for us’
  • Allow children to be children.

If you could influence the ICP Executive with a message , what would you have to say?

  • Foster a school culture that is inclusive where leaders are actively listening to what matters to students.
  • Life is so much more than grades and homework.
  • Mental health is not a destination but a process. 
  • Be our advocates – we need you to get our voices heard. You need to be healthy also! What is your work/life balance like? Are you a good role model?
  • Listen – school is about the students so make it better for them. 

NOTE:

This rich and powerful discussion was a lesson for us all in how our students see themselves and their education journey. These are their words – not mine! It was both enriching and emotional to listen to their honest contributions and reinforced for me the absolute importance of including student voices in everything we do as global leaders. There is no moving forward if not together. Our future is with them and for them. 

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