Support without stigma (2)
In my previous column, I discussed why schools should be our first line of defense in implementing preventive and early response mental health measures. Findings of the Department of Education report on the state of mental health of students highlight the urgency to do so. In 2021, there were at least 404 recorded cases of suicide, while an additional 2,147 students made an attempt to take their own life.
Lawmakers have started to take notice. The proposed Basic Education Mental Health and Well-Being Promotion Act is currently being discussed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. If passed, it will appropriate funds and allow for the hiring and deployment of more guidance counselors and associates in schools.
There is still a need, however, for more immediate and tangible interventions. This week, I wish to highlight three evidence-based approaches to implementing school-based mental health initiatives.
1. Make social emotional learning (SEL) a priority program.
SEL focuses on helping children and adults develop five key skills: to understand and manage one’s emotions, to set and achieve positive goals, to feel and show empathy for others, to establish positive relationships, and to make responsible decisions. Numerous types of research have shown that these skills are not only critical for success in school and life, but they also provide a strong foundation for positive mental health. A 2011 landmark study found that students who participated in SEL programs had an 11 percentage point gain in academic achievement and a 10 percentage point decrease in emotional distress. These students also showed significant improvements in overall well-being and social skills compared to students who did not participate.
The beauty of SEL as a preventive measure is that it was developed specifically for people without a counseling or psychology background. The practical approach and simple terms make it both easy and cost-efficient to implement and achieve target outcomes. Last year, a partnership between Mano Amiga and the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. enabled us to share our best practices in running a school-wide SEL program through a four-month training and coaching program for Cebu-based public school teachers.
The best testament to the replicability of the program is how some participants who initially expressed doubts have become its staunchest advocates—and are now spearheading the strategic implementation of SEL in their schools. Some teachers even took the initiative to train their colleagues from other districts. Many shared how SEL also strengthened their own mental resiliency.
Policymakers and educators should advocate for the systematic incorporation of SEL in schools. Those looking to learn more would find free and comprehensive SEL resources on edutopia.org and casel.org.
2. Train teachers and staff on psychological first aid (PFA).
Schools are usually the primary source of student and community support after an emergency. This includes exposure to a suicide event within the school, devastating natural disasters, public health concerns (e.g. COVID-19), and other smaller-scale emergencies like witnessing an accident. Through PFA, school personnel would have the basic competencies to identify and mitigate student distress (including what not to do), in the immediate aftermath of a crisis.
There are several available seminars but I strongly recommend a free online program that could be found on Coursera.org. The Johns Hopkins University PFA course offers comprehensive training on the Rapid model: reflective listening, assessment of needs, prioritization, intervention, and disposition. At the height of enhanced community quarantine in 2020, my team and I all enrolled in the course and had weekly Zoom meetings to process our insights. Learning PFA together gave us a good starting knowledge of needed interventions and a common language for shaping our overall mental health strategy. 3. Guidance counselors should be active and visible members of student and campus life. A common hindrance in school-based mental health initiatives is that some students will not open up even if help is available, and even perceive guidance counseling sessions as intrusive.
To help establish a feeling of safety and trust, interactions between students and guidance counselors should not be limited to the guidance office, but something seamlessly embedded in other facets of student life. Some examples include assigning them to moderate well-being clubs or organizing quarterly group “kamustahan” sessions. These help create more natural opportunities for them to develop a genuine connection with the students.
Shepherding the well-being of a school community cannot be solely dependent on the guidance office and one or a few individuals; it necessitates a school-wide response. Mental health initiatives should no longer be seen as supplementary programs. They are an integral and nonnegotiable aspect of the educational mission of schools.