A recent poll conducted in the UK, found some startling, concerning and ultimately, saddening discoveries about the mental health issues children are suffering from. Is there something from the field of positive psychology that can be done to improve the mental health of children? From the work that we’re doing in schools, colleges and universities, we would say a resounding “Yes”.
With over 2,000 UK teachers being polled, the results provide interesting and worrying reading:
• 98% had come into contact with students who had experienced mental health issues
• 91% were aware of students who suffered from panic attacks
• 79% knew of students who were dealing with depression
• 65% knew a student who was self-harming
• 50% were aware of a student with an eating disorder
• 47% knew of a student with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
Teachers are witnessing how mental health issues are leading to students having difficulties concentrating, participating fully or even making friends.
While these figures alone are alarming, when the mental health issues were categorised by age group, as a parent and co-founder of an organisation that introduces a positive psychology approach into educational establishments, I was less surprised than other people that I have spoken to about the mental health of children.
In response to the poll questions, teachers said that of the students experiencing mental health issues:
• 58% were 15-16 year olds
• 55% were 13-14 year olds
• 35% were 7-11 year olds
• 18% were 4-7 year olds
Positive psychology and the mental health of children
So how can positive psychology improve the mental health of children? We believe that the acronym, RISE, can be the catalyst for overcoming mental health issues of children. RISE is made up of 4 key concepts from the field of positive psychology, namely, Resilience, Increasing happiness, Strengths and Emotions. By applying this approach for students, teachers, parents and carers, we can enable children to flourish.
Pressures and challenges on students appear to be growing, not only from the need to make certain grades, but also from social media and social comparison. This can lead to children suffering from stress and anxiety, which effects them both personally and also with their school work. By understanding ways in which to be more resilient in times of adversity, it will enable students to navigate their way through a situation more effectively. Research and interventions from positive psychology and resilience are being taught to teachers, students, parents and carers, so as to help children to bounce back from setbacks more quickly and also to persevere in a situation, where they may have given up previously.
Increasing happiness has a large impact on improving the mental health of children and positive psychology has often been described as the science of happiness. Teaching children evidence-based ways to increase their happiness can help to boost their wellbeing and according to research carried out by Harvard lecturer, Dr Christina Hinton, (Link) happier students are more likely to get better grades. This is an important element in improving the mental health of children and allowing them to flourish.
We have carried out work in schools, colleges and universities, both with students and staff to enable them to understand their own strengths, spot strengths in other people and to develop ways to apply their strengths more frequently in the correct context. Strengths use not only gives children the opportunity to do what they excel at and enjoy, which results in greater productivity and engagement in tasks, but applying strengths effectively improves the mental health of children.
Emotions can have a profound impact on the mental health of children, especially in a period of rapid development of mind, body and character. Having an awareness of emotions, both positive and negative (and there is a whole other article about when an emotion is positive and when it is negative!) and positive psychology research suggests that the benefits of positive emotions not only improve physical health, but they also buffer against stress and help people to recover from depression. Again, another example of how a positive psychology approach can improve the mental health of children.
The hashtag #LetsTalk is growing ever popular, and it is encouraging people experiencing mental illness to talk about what they are going through. Being there for children with mental health concerns lets them know that they have a support network, that they have a safe space to talk and deal with what they are facing and also that they have another person with compassion to help them to cope with what they most want to do. From a positive psychology perspective, that children have the conditions that will eventually enable them to recover and ultimately flourish.
It may sound simplistic, but why wouldn’t we want children to be more resilient, to be happy, to play to their strengths and to experience more positive emotions?
We need to improve the mental health of children before it becomes an epidemic and a positive psychology approach is one of the best ways to achieve this, with our RISE model at the heart of it.