Many parents across Ireland are worried about their children. Because many of their children have problems. We are all aware of that. At A Lust for Life, we know this because every day we hear from parents asking us for support.
However, when the results of A Lust for Life’s most recent survey of parents about their children’s mental health came in, even we were shocked.
The aftermath of the pandemic is still being felt deeply in households across Ireland, with parents across the country telling us their children are anxious, depressed, less social, anxious in crowds, obsessed with hygiene, sleepless and exhausted.
Three out of four parents are understandably concerned about their children and want to make things right for them. And they’re worried because they don’t know what to say or what to do.
Many of these parents, like us, have never received any sort of mental health education and don’t know where to start those conversations.
Our survey results are well worth reading, as 74 percent of parents told us that the pandemic and its aftermath had a negative impact on their child’s mental health; that their children are overall less social (52 percent), less able to concentrate (44 percent) and more depressed (19 percent) than before.
Parents are also struggling themselves, with 76 percent saying their mental health has been negatively impacted in the past year. Concern for their children tops the reason (65 percent), but the pandemic, climate change, cost of living crisis and other family and social issues are cited as negative impacts.
Our own survey sits alongside much larger longitudinal studies such as the My World Survey 2, which recently told the story of a generation of young people who were more anxious, depressed, less optimistic, less resilient, and had lower self-esteem than they were seven years ago when the first My World survey was conducted. And of 19,000 young people surveyed, 40 percent were in the clinical range for depression, 49 percent for anxiety, while 41 percent had considered suicide.
We are not interested in admiring this problem, exposing it and blaming, speculating, preaching and waving our fists on the government and everyone else.
We’re much more interested in seeing what we can do to fix this – to shift the scale and bring about a sea change in the way we talk about and deal with mental health in this country.
In 2018 we began developing a primary school program which we are launching today – it is now live in one in four schools in Ireland and is available free of charge to any school wishing to teach it. That’s more than 44,000 children in 1,800 classrooms in more than 780 schools. Our goal is to make the program accessible to all elementary school students by 2024.
It is designed as a mass education program to provide children with the skills and tools to emotionally self-regulate and make sense of their mind and the world.
We wanted to create an intergenerational disconnect – to give kids the language and skills we didn’t need, to help them manage their minds, and to give them a toolbox when things inevitably get difficult or go wrong.
In developing this program, we often looked at each other and asked, “How different would our lives have been if we had had this as kids?”
We developed this program in collaboration with a team of educators, psychologists and digital experts, using the latest generation of positive psychology and CBT principles, to bring it to life with simple digital tools that children find fun, relevant and engaging integrate throughout the curriculum.
Throughout, we’ve received a lot of input from teachers, parents, and children themselves on the design, content, “teachability,” and look and feel of the program.
We have also partnered with the UCD School of Psychology and the DCU School of Education, who evaluate the program annually to provide world-class research support to create an evidence base for the program.
While still in the early stages, we have seen promising results so far, with children showing increased emotional competence, mindfulness, and coping skills after participating in the program.
Teachers in particular have been key partners in developing and improving the program at every stage. As today is World Teachers Day, it is vital that our country recognizes the need to support our teachers to have these conversations in classrooms across Ireland.
Our teachers, like Irish parents, are aware of the difficulties faced by many of the children in their care, but many feel ill-equipped to address them in the classroom.
We have one of the best education systems in the world run by incredibly dedicated teachers. When dealing with children’s mental health, we must consider them as key players and support them as much as possible so that they can help their students.
We recognize the need to invest in crisis management support for teachers, for example by making consultants available to every school in Ireland.
We also need to start thinking seriously about offering them evidence based curriculum linked prevention programs to teach every child in Ireland about their feelings, how to deal with dark days, how to manage sometimes difficult relationships and how to deal with the increasing complexities in the world around them.
Of course, prevention isn’t just about mental health education—that’s just the beginning. Prevention needs to go deeper — it means examining the social and environmental issues that have led us into this mental health crisis.
While some mental illnesses are considered congenital, they are all too often an understandable response to the social, environmental, and cultural conditions in which we live. If children’s basic needs for safety and security are not met, they will suffer.
If they live in poverty, are afraid of major crises such as the pandemic or climate change, or are discriminated against because of their sexuality, gender or race, they do not need to be pathologized.
These so-called “diseases of despair” are often not diseases but very rational and appropriate responses to a world in crisis.
So yes, we desperately need awareness and prevention programs – like ours and others – that are deeply integrated into our education system and recognize that every child in Ireland is entitled to comprehensive mental health education.
We must also help parents and teachers to support children and young people in their lives and to help them put their well-being at the center of their education.
And more generally, we need to address the impact of our society, culture and decision-making on children’s lives.
Paula McLoughlin and Andrew Jenkinson serve on the steering committee of A Lust For Life and were co-authors of this article. All Irish primary schools can login to alflschools.com and register for our free programme.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/our-children-need-to-be-able-to-make-sense-of-an-ever-changing-world-so-lets-give-them-the-tools-to-do-it-42040951.html Our children need to be able to make sense of an ever-changing world, so let’s give them the tools to do so