Public expectation puts teachers on mental health frontline

September 04, 2020

The expectations parents and the wider community place on teachers has put them on the very frontline of managing an emerging youth mental health crisis that is expected to grow by up to 30 per cent over the next decade, the “Valuing the teaching profession  —  an independent inquiry” has heard.

This is while teachers who are already dealing with students’ emotional and social development problems  —  such as autism, anxiety, ADHD or disability  —  feel they have neither the skills nor the necessary support to cope, prominent University of Sydney psychiatry professor Ian Hickie told the inquiry panel.

“Our expectation is that somehow teachers will intrinsically know what to do and be able to contain those behaviours that families and others are struggling themselves to respond to,” Professor Hickie said.

He pointed to a documented, and “worrying”, rise in anxiety, depression and self-harm, among school students worldwide, at younger ages and for reasons that are not understood. He did not put the increase down to the raising of awareness and therefore reporting of these conditions.

“So the pressure on teachers has gone up,” Professor Hickie, who is a director at the Brain and Mind Centre at the Sydney Medical School, said. “Teachers are on the frontline of recognition of this [issue] so many of the calls for improvements in the response have come from teachers.

“When you are faced with the consequences of this increasing challenge you feel you don’t have the skills or you don’t feel you are being supported in your key role then I think the emotional impact on teachers is much higher.

“Many teachers have recognised they play a fundamental role in child development, and that’s why many of them are teachers … those mentoring relationships are profound.

“The worst thing for teachers is to know that expectations have gone up and they feel that they’ve not got the skills or the support to respond in a way that would be in the best interests of the child.”

Professor Hickie told the inquiry, chaired by former WA premier Geoff Gallop, there needed to be a change in thinking to deal with rising neuro-developmental issues, highlighting the need for partnerships between the education and health sectors at a systemic level.

“I think we have to develop better health services that actually work in partnership with schools because you need a whole range of more specialised services for assessment and then intervention.”

Professor Hickie said one of the most important responses to a child’s social and emotional development problems was time spent with “mature adults”.

“Outside of your own family, it is more likely to be a teacher than anybody else,” he said. “So the role previously played by church people, by sporting coaches, by community leaders, by all sorts of people has rapidly declined in the last part of the 20th century and continued to decline in the 21st century.

“So we fall back on teachers and the continuity provided in schools; seeing kids over time, seeing kids develop, their experience with many children. I think we have become increasingly reliant on teachers for that capacity to respond when in the past many other mature adults may have well been part of that extended family and in the wider community.

“One of my favourite pieces of epidemiology is that the onset of mental health problems goes down in primary school and I largely attribute that to primary school teachers  —  kids finally meet functional adults other than their parents.

“That role of other key functioning adults is critical and I think for teachers to do that effectively they need to feel they have the skills and they’re actually being supported to do it.

“That they’ve got the time, they’ve got the support, they’ve got the access to other professionals, they’re not on their own dealing with really challenging behaviours and situations in a world that has become more complex in many ways, in terms of our expectations.”


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© New South Wales Teachers Federation. All Rights Reserved.

Authorised by John Dixon, General Secretary, NSW Teachers Federation, 23-33 Mary St. Surry Hills NSW 2010

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