In this series, 4th year primary Catholic Teaching Certificate students share the findings of their studies on a new elective course entitled Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues
Erin McLaughlan, MEduc4 student
A challenge of significant prevalence, especially in the past year, has been the impact of mental health within Scottish schools, with few issues given greater importance than the mental health of our children and young people. Recent statistics conducted by the NHS Scotland, suggested that the proportion of children currently experiencing a mental health problem has increased over the past three years, from one in nine in 2017, to one in six in July 2020. Scottish Action for Mental Health’s 2020 report Supporting Our Young People highlights that there are numerous societal and health impacts that can be responsible for fluctuations in a person’s mental health and no one solution exists that can provide an adequate response to improving the mental health of all children, across all social backgrounds.
However, the Vatican document The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) offers a valuable understanding through the notion of “radical instability” (paragraph 10). It suggests that children are increasingly exposed to a one-dimensional understanding of their place in the world, with value placed upon materialistic consumerism and economic success. Subsequently, the growth of increased pressure from the likes of social media portray a damaging reflection of an unattainable, idealistic utopia with increasingly negative impacts upon feelings of contentment and self-worth. Catholic educationalist Gerald Grace (2009) therefore suggests that children and young adults may have lost touch with the elements of their life that hold true value, such as their unique talents and interests, and importantly, their spiritual relationship with God. I believe that Catholic schools, with their strong pastoral and holistic focus, can offer a unique approach to supporting the mental health of their pupils.
While it is true that all those in education are motivated towards ensuring the positive wellbeing of their students, those in Catholic education are guided by faith and the words of Jesus, as reflected in the following quote: ‘I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full’ (John 10:10) which denotes a love and appreciation for life that is encouraged across school ethos. However, such an aim may have benefits which go beyond the school walls. Interestingly, a study conducted by the Oxford Happiness Inventory (1989) explored the association between religion and happiness and the positive connection between personal affect and religious affect. By this account, one potential way in which Catholic schools can provide support in the area of mental health and wellbeing is through the continued focus of the interior, rather than exterior with an understanding within the classroom that every child is made in the image and likeness of God, with unique God Given talents. This is of particular importance as a foundation for future learning within the early years as within early childhood, according to Piaget (1964), children first begin to develop a “self-concept,” which include many attributes, abilities, attitudes and values that they believe define them and this can have significant impact upon a child’s progression and approach to learning as well as overall feelings of self- worth.
Within the life of the Catholic school, there are many opportunities to develop such an ethos. As an example, I was afforded during placement to observe the way in which mental health learning is supported within a religious education lesson by observing the teaching of a Primary 7 class about National Mental Health Awareness Week, via the learning of Pope Benedict XVI and his dedicating of the celebration of the 14th World Day of the Sick in 2006 to those who suffer from mental illness. One way in which this was effectively introduced was through the encouragement and participation of pupils in petitionary prayer; which involved the pupils praying for other people; be that friends or family members. The children were fully engaged in the act of prayer within the class with the lesson providing a safe place where children had the opportunity to pray and offer concerns to God in a gentle, supportive environment. This experience highlighted classroom prayer as a powerful tool in supporting effective wellbeing within the classroom as well as effective relationship building between teacher, peers and God.
A further valuable way in which Catholic schools can support mental health within Catholic Schools is through the teaching of original sin, ensuring children are aware that mistakes happen and are part of being human. This could provide a useful opportunity for emotional regulation, and the understanding of “rupture and repair” as learning experiences may surround difficult feelings to understand such as jealousy, anger and ultimately forgiveness; all of which can be explored through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Gospels.
Meditation, as an additional technique can bring attention to the qualities associated with mindfulness, including attentiveness, calmness and awareness of thoughts. Furthermore movement- based meditation often providing a helpful alternative for children who have learning disabilities or difficulty sitting still, which as a technique, aims to support inclusive pedagogical practice within the classroom.
As a prospective teacher I believe it is through a continued focus upon the interconnected nature of religious education and positive mental health strategies that we can promote the pupil voice, dignity and inclusion regardless of ability, strengths or faith background.