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 a student’s wellbeing, we’re referring to the positive aspects of their growth and personal development. We sometimes refer to the higher levels of wellbeing as thriving:

Thriving of young people refers to a state in which young people experience growth, fulfillment, and wellbeing across various aspects of their lives. When thriving, they are actively engaged in personal development, pursuing their interests, and achieving their goals. Thriving encompasses physical, emotional, social, and intellectual wellbeing as well as a sense of purpose and connection to others and the world around them.

Defining attributes of thriving are:


Growth refers to the process of development, expansion, and improvement in various aspects of life, including physical, intellectual, emotional, and social domains. It involves acquiring new skills, gaining knowledge, and evolving as individuals.


Exploration involves the act of seeking out new experiences, ideas, and opportunities for learning and growth. It entails curiosity, openness, and a willingness to venture into uncharted territories to discover new possibilities and perspectives.


Self-management refers to the ability to regulate and control thinking, emotions and behaviours effectively. It involves recognising triggers, coping with stress, and maintaining emotional balance. It also refers to the regulation of social-emotional blockers of anxiety, feeling down, anger, procrastination and not paying attention.


Connection refers to the establishment of meaningful relationships with others, including family members, friends, mentors, and peers. It involves building rapport, fostering trust, and experiencing a sense of belonging and support within interpersonal networks.


Achievement encompasses the attainment of goals, accomplishments, and milestones that contribute to personal growth and success. It involves setting targets, working diligently to overcome obstacles, and experiencing a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment upon reaching desired outcomes.


Empowerment involves the process of gaining confidence, autonomy, and agency to take control of one's life and make informed choices. It entails recognizing one's strengths, advocating for oneself, and actively participating in decision-making processes that impact personal and collective well-being.

On the flip side, student mental health is about the challenging parts of their development. We refer to higher degrees of mental health challenges as mental health disorders.

There is a continuum of mental health symptoms experienced by many young people. Research indicates that many children and adolescents may experience mild or transient symptoms of mental health disorders that do not meet the diagnostic threshold for a formal diagnosis. These subclinical symptoms may include occasional feelings of anxiety, sadness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, or mild behavioural challenges.

Mental health disorders in children and adolescents refer to a range of conditions that affect their emotional, psychological, and behavioural well-being, leading to significant distress, dysfunction, and impairment in daily life. These disorders can manifest in various forms, including mood disorders (such as depression and bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders (such as generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), disruptive behaviour disorders (such as oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder), eating disorders, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and other mental health conditions.

These disorders often involve disturbances in thinking, mood, behaviour, and social interactions, impacting a child or adolescent’s ability to function effectively at home, school, and in social settings. Early identification, diagnosis, and intervention are crucial for addressing mental health disorders in children and adolescents, as they can have long-term effects on academic performance, social relationships, and overall well-being. Treatment approaches may include therapy (such as cognitive-behavioural therapy), medication, family support, and educational interventions tailored to the specific needs of the individual.

There are two important points that need to be made about the mental health disorders that a minority of young people experience.

First, young people with mental health disorders do recover. The recovery rate for young people with mental health disorders varies significantly depending on the type and severity of the disorder as well as the effectiveness of treatment and support.

Second, as a colleague of mine, Amanda Kluge, a Year 6 teacher and student wellbeing leader has helped me to clarify, a diagnosis of a mental health disorder does not define the totality of a person’s essence. Many, many people with diagnosed mental health disorders also present with an array of strengths, interests and talents. When harnessed and with treatment, advocacy and support, high levels of wellbeing and thriving are experienced.

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 as can be observed in the tables below. 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 Australian article – our kids might be onto something).

From a school's perspective

It is important that leadership and decision-makers are aware that school-based social-emotional learning (SEL) programs (character strengths/values, friendship-making, resilience, gratitude, empathy) implemented effectively do strengthen the wellbeing of students.

However, many but not all Tier 1 SEL programs also prevent the escalation of normal developmental mental health challenges (anxiety, feeling down, anger) from becoming mental health disorders. For example, values and character-strengths programs target the development of positive wellbeing but do not as a rule have a focus on mental health challenges. The Victorian Department of Education’s SEL program, Resilience, Rights and Responsibilities, has a primary focus on the development of social-emotional and positive relationship skills without addressing to any great extent mental health challenges. On the other hand, 25% of lessons in You Can Do It! Education’s SEL Program Achieve Curricula are devoted to helping students become aware of and manage social-emotional ‘blockers’ (e.g., anxiety, feeling down, anger, procrastination, not paying attention).

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.

    be authentic - how authenticity primes social-emotional learning

    Being Authentic Primes Social-Emotional Learning

    Social-emotional learning (SEL) can come across as insincere to students if their teachers are not practicing what they are teaching.
    Read More →
    Scroll to Top