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Setting them up to fail: Mental Health Education in Australian Schools

FACT: Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians, accounting for the deaths of more young people than car accidents. *1

FACT: One in four young Australians currently has a mental health condition. *2

FACT: Half of all lifetime cases of mental health disorders start by age 14 years. *3

When going to high school in the 90’s I, like a lot of society, was taught very little about mental health and how it interacts with our lives. Mental health and anything to do with it was a taboo subject that was not discussed, let alone taught in school. In the 20 years since there has been amazing steps taken to educate people about mental health in wider society and yet the curriculum mandated by Australian Curriculum puts it as one twelfth of the syllabus for Health and Physical Education.

Let me put this into perspective, the curriculum up to the end of Year 10 is split into eight learning areas of which Health and Physical Education is one. The average student spends around six hours a day, five days a week in the classroom for an average of 40 weeks per year. This makes a total of 1,200 hours our children spend at school each year. Assuming schools divide this time evenly between learning areas that means children get 150 hours per year on each area and in the case of mental health it is one twelfth of the subject. This equates to roughly 12.5 hours over the course of a whole year IF the schools equate syllabus to learning time, WHICH THEY DON’T and often the lion’s share of the Health and Physical Education curriculum is given to physical activity.

Often the mental health section of the curriculum is squeezed into one lesson a week, alongside the following (important) topics: alcohol and other drugs, food and nutrition, health benefits of physical activity (yes, more physical activity here), relationships and sexuality, and safety. This gives our schools between 45 – 60 minutes a week to cover some of the most important lessons in life that will help throughout life.

This approach to mental health education by Australian Curriculum is a token effort at best and research is showing alarming increases in the rate of mental health issues by young Australians. To put it bluntly, as important as subjects such as English, Mathematics and Science are, what is the point of teaching kids these skills if they are not being taught how to keep themselves mentally healthy? How to seek help and keep them from taking their own lives? How to live their best lives?

One solution is for the Curriculum to increase the practical, skills-based approach to good mental health, weaving it into other subjects from early childhood. Early learning is vital and practical mental health skills could be woven into lessons. This way students are already skilful by the time they are in the senior school years. For example, a child in kindergarten can learn to identify their emotions in the course of their day. This will come in handy when their need to regulate their emotions is sorely tested as a teenager.

I realise that there is no golden bullet solution to this issue but I feel that the token style approach that is currently used cannot continue and change is required. I would love to hear from everyone on your thoughts how mental health can better be incorporated into schools.


*1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Retrieved from

*3. Kessler, R., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K., & Walters, E. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age of onset distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 593.

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