14 SES 03 C JS, Interventions to Promote Wellbeing: Schools and Community
Joint Paper Session NW 08 and NW 14
There is growing concern about apparent increases in childhood mental health difficulties particularly in the Western and English speaking world. The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 20% of children and young people experience a disabling mental health problem (Amnesty International, 2011). Discussion of the causes of these difficulties often focuses on individual deficits such as poor self-regulation skills or diminished self-efficacy (Wyman, 2010). However, the causes of childhood mental health difficulties are multifaceted and need to be understood, not just at individual or micro level, but at meso and macro levels as well.
The increases in childhood distress have been attributed to features of contemporary culture. Among the issues of concern are the incessant commercialisation of childhood by the advertising industry (Palmer, 2007; Schor, 2014), the sexualisation of children at increasingly young age (Lamb & Mykel-Brown, 2006), the growth of an audit culture in education which places emphasis on test performance (Torrance, 2004), and reduced time and space for free, unstructured play (Grey, 2013).
It is important to note however, that certain groups of children are more negatively affected by these cultural trends than others. For instance, a substantial body of research shows that mental health problems are more common in areas of poverty and deprivation (Freidli, 2009). Likewise, the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood has a more pernicious effect on girls, who are frequently objectified and faced with narrow and unrealistic ideals of feminine beauty (Coy, 2009; Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997).
In response to the growing levels of distress amongst children, schools have emerged as an ideal setting in which to promote wellbeing. School-based interventions may be targeted towards children who might benefit most, such as those who have encountered significant adversity or risk. They can also be delivered as part of a universal preventative approach, which can be important both in terms of cost-effectiveness and in reducing stigma (Kuyken, Weare, Ukoumunne, 2012; Rutter, 2013).
However, there is considerable debate surrounding how to best promote mental health in schools. Two diverse approaches will be explored in this paper. First, the psychological sciences have given rise to an increasing number of mental health programmes aimed at school-going populations. Examples include FRIENDS (Barrett, et.al, 2006), Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL, Humphries, 2010), and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Children (MBCT-C; Semple et.al, 2005). In general these programmes are based on sound principles and theoretical frameworks, and there is a wealth of research supporting their effectiveness (e.g., Weare& Nind, 2011). These programmes also tend to be prescriptive in nature, developed and driven by “experts” and often have strict requirements around training and fidelity.
In contrast, others stress that individual and collective wellbeing can best be enhanced by bottom-up processes of empowerment, democracy and participation. Feminist, post-colonial and critical social theorists have been instrumental in drawing attention to structures and processes that maintain dominant and oppressive traditions (Freire, 1993; hooks, 1993; Moane, 2011). Such theorists are acutely aware that mental health difficulties are more likely amongst oppressed and marginalised groups. Thus a critical awareness of oppressive conditions is central to any attempts to improve wellbeing. Prescriptive solutions by detached experts are not the answer, precisely because experts form part of the dominant, powerful and oppressive culture. Marginalised groups must apprehend reality in their own way and must themselves become agents in a process Freire calls “consientization”.
These two positions are ideologically and epistemologically opposed. In this paper I first review the different traditions along with their respective approaches and methods. I then use theoretical and philosophical frameworks to explore ways that the two traditions can be brought into conversation.
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