Student Wellbeing and Student Mental Health: Opposing Forces

Dr Michael E. Bernard

Founder, You Can Do It! Education

Emeritus Professor, California State University, Long Beach
Former Professor, Melbourne Graduate School for Education, Melbourne University
Doctorate of Educational Psychology

The difference between Student Wellbeing and Mental Health

What is the difference between student wellbeing and mental health?

When we talk about students’ mental health, we’re referring to the challenging parts of their development. These challenges can include emotional issues such as anxiety and depression, disruptive behaviours like aggression or withdrawal, school refusal, and unhealthy attitudes like self-deprecation, low frustration tolerance, and seeking approval.

Student wellbeing, on the flip side, is about the positive aspects of their growth. It involves social-emotional skills like confidence, persistence, goal-setting, time management, friendship, empathy, and resilience. It also includes values and character strengths such as respect, responsibility, a love of learning, and leadership, and healthy attitudes like a growth mindset, self-acceptance, and optimism.

Surprisingly, these two dimensions don't necessarily go hand in hand

My research, in collaboration with ACER measuring the wellbeing and mental health of 500,000 primary and secondary students since 2018, paints an interesting picture. While many students report high levels of self-reported anxiety, a significant percentage also say they’re very happy and content with who they are. (Check out the recent Australian article – our kids might be onto something).

From a school's perspective

It is crucial that leadership and decision-makers are aware that school-based social-emotional learning programs (character strengths/values, friendship-making, resilience, gratitude, empathy) that strengthen the wellbeing and flourishing of all students (Tier 1) significantly have a big impact on students’ mental health.

Preventative mental health programs in school (also Tier 1) are a different ballgame. The best programs often draw from cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) principles and practices, helping young people connect the dots between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. These programs aim to raise awareness and facilitate a shift from unhealthy attitudes (like seeking approval) to healthier ones (emphasizing independence), from low frustration tolerance to high, and from self-deprecation to self-acceptance. However, these mental health-oriented programs might not do much to boost overall student wellbeing and flourishing.

Deciding what's best for your students

When you’re sifting through the options for mental health and wellbeing programs, check out the Be You Program Directory. It is also wise to consider incorporating different types of programs across different year levels.

Since the initial creation of the You Can Do It! Education initiative we’ve been intentional about weaving mental health and social-emotional learning/wellbeing activities into our K-12 Program Achieve curricula. – Early Childhood, Primary, Secondary.

To further discuss your student and school needs please use the form below to contact us.

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