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Mental Health Promotion in Schools

Rhona Birrell Weisen
Consultant with the Program on Mental Health

John Orley
Manager of the Program in the Division of Mental Health and Prevention of Substance Abuse,

World Health Organization,
1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland

When people think of mental health, a negative picture of madness or depression tends to come to mind. However, just as physical health creates an image of strength and vitality, mental health should be associated with strength of mind and vitality in the way that individuals interact with others and as they deal with the challenges of everyday life.

SchoolsWhen children have the opportunity to attend school, education provides them with information, instruction and exercises to assist the development of knowledge and practical skills. They may also be lucky enough to learn about health and healthy lifestyles. Unfortunately, only a minority of children will be taught how to deal with the demands of everyday life: for example, how to cope with stress, how to communicate with others, how to solve problems, how to express their feelings or how to think critically. Sadly, there has been a long-standing assumption that people just acquire these "how to" skills for life as a natural process while they are growing up. As witnessed by the scale of mental health problems of both children and adults, the "how to" of life is often a rather weak component of human competence.

Life skills education in schools enables children to protect and promote their own health and well-being. They must have the opportunity to practice such skills in the classroom as well as in homework assignments. Teaching methods therefore need to be interactive for learning such skills, rather than just acquiring knowledge. The ideals are defined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the child: "the education of the child shall be directed to...the preparation of child for a responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of the sexes, and friendship amongst all peoples..."

SchoolsUnfortunately, schools do not always match these ideals, and for many children the school is experienced as a harsh and unsupportive environment. As part of the broader WHO Global School Health Initiative, WHO's Mental Health Program is urging all schools to become mental health-promoting and "child friendly" by promoting cooperative and active learning, life skills education, tolerance, caring, creativity and -above all- the self-esteem of children. Such schools will provide and education that is relevant to children's lives, will work in close consultation with parents, and will work to prevent all forms of violence, especially bullying.

When all schools are health-promoting in this way, a major improvement is anticipated in the mental health status of children, and of the adults that they will become. By that time, "mental health" should lose its negative image and the real significance of mental well-being for human societies will be acknowledged.

Ten Steps to Help Schools Become "Health Promoting Schools"

Dr. Lloyd Kolbe, Chairman, WHO Expert Committee on Comprehensive School Health Education and Promotion.

If we nurture the health, hopes and skills of young people, their potential to improve the world is unbounded. If we are healthy, they can take the best advantage of every opportunity to learn. If they are educated, they can live fulfilled lives and contribute to building the future for everyone.

In 1995, WHO convened an Expert Committee on Comprehensive School Health Education and Promotion to access what is known about promoting health through schools. The Committee was made up of persons from ministries of education and health, nongovernmental organizations, universities, and research institutions. The Committee reviewed research from both developing and developed countries and concluded that, without question, school health programs can simultaneously reduce common health problems, increase the efficiency of the education system, and thus advance public health, education, and social and economic development in all nations.

The Committee set out ten steps which, if implemented, will enable schools throughout the world to become "health-promoting schools". They are important steps to a better future - for everyone.

The recommendations are:

  1. An entry point for health promotion and intervention
    Schools should be healthy places in which to work, help prevent and treat the common health problems of children and staff, and provide referral as needed to appropriate health institutions.

  2. Critical health and life skills
    Skills-based health education can enable children to make healthy choices and adopt healthy behavior throughout their lives.

  3. A safe learning and working environment
    Schools must provide safe water and sanitary facilities and protection from diseases, violence and harmful substances.

  4. Full educational participation of girls
    Improving and expanding educational opportunities for girls is one of the best health and social investments a country can make.

  5. Investment in schooling
    Every Member State must provide education in school that meets the full range of children's learning and developmental needs.

  6. International support
    International support must be further developed to enhance the ability of Member States, local communities and schools to promote health and education.

  7. Successful school health programs
    School health programs must be well designed, monitored and evaluated to ensure successful implementation and outcomes.

  8. Community and school interaction
    The community and the school must work together to support health and education.

  9. Training of teachers and school staff
    Teachers and school staff must be valued and provided with the support necessary to enable them to promote health.

  10. Policies, Legislation and Guidelines
    Policies, legislation and guidelines must be developed to ensure the mobilization, allocation and coordination of resources at all levels.

View Graphical Ten Steps

Editor's note:

Documents and other materials on mental health promotion in schools are available on request from the Division of Mental Health and Prevention of Substance Abuse, WHO, Geneva. A supportive environment encourages children to relax and enjoy one another's company.

Published: 20 February 2009

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