Prophets of the Future 5: Technology and Mental Health in Catholic Schools

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.

Nicola Ramsay, MEduc4 student

One of the growing challenges facing the Catholic school system is tackling mental health issues in children and young adults growing up in the technology-driven 21st century. I believe Catholic schools can take action to combat this and create meaningful change.

For many, mental health issues continue into adulthood and lead to harmful consequences which could have been avoided given the correct support and nurture. Schools have increasingly been targeted as sites for mental health promotion and teachers placed to identify issues concerning students’ social and emotional wellbeing, thus there is an expectation that schools can play a major role in reducing impacts of these pressures.

There are many challenges teachers on the front-line face when it comes to mental health. From the increasing rates of anxiety and depression in young people, to the growing impacts of alienation within our society. I believe a key contributing factor in perpetuating the aforementioned challenges is the rapid rise in children’s engagement in online social media and gaming services. Despite the benefits technology offers within the classroom, at home, intrusive online apps are exposing children to tech companies ceaselessly vying for their attention for views and profit, regardless of the subsequent impact to the user.

While social media and gaming platforms may appear harmless, these platforms are set up with highly advanced technology which preys on our innate human psyche when it comes to addictive tendencies in order to secure the user’s attention as much and for as long as possible. Furthermore, as the methods used to keep one engaged are based around seeking constant validation from peers, it negatively affects children’s self-worth and self-esteem when these needs are not met. As these platforms are designed to keep you wanting more, this dissatisfaction is inevitable. Thus, teachers must equip pupils with the tools needed to combat such a contemporary area of concern.

I believe that holistically promoting growth of the ‘whole child’ as stated in the Charter for Catholic Schools will reduce their risk of being susceptible to such negative content.

Firstly, instilling a strong set of beliefs within children offers a sense of belonging, purpose and meaning. This purpose and meaning religion and Catholic teaching offers to children has been demonstrated to help with hardship. A touching example of the will of man can be found in this quote used by Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who never stopped his search for a deeper meaning in life when faced with the harshest of realities, from his book Man’s Search for Meaning: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” A strong belief system helps one focus inward for truth and meaning rather than outwardly. Instilling these values by working on spirituality and what comes from within rather than a focus on an outward aesthetic offers children self-worth, reminding them they are made in the image and likeness of God.

Secondly, the community approach Catholic schools offer is fundamental in supporting those who are the most vulnerable within our communities. Providing a sense of community with family, teachers, parish and child offers a sense of belonging. It is brought to life through the actions, interactions and attitudes of all community members. Belonging is enhanced through respectful and thoughtful relationships, and enhances children’s agency and self-efficacy, enabling them to have the inner confidence to know that their God-given talents will be encouraged by those around them.

Thirdly, a powerful tool Catholic schools have is in the form of prayer. Knowing you are never alone when you have God to listen to your prayer may alleviate feelings of isolation. Vivienne Mountain’s 2005 study in the International Journal of Children’s Spirituality found that prayer could function as a means to cope with difficult experiences in life, as the words or thoughts in prayer helped to clarify and articulate deep feelings.

A form of prayer often used in combating mental health and harnessing the focus of the body and mind is meditation. It has been found to decrease the symptoms of anxiety and depression, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body, and improve attention span and concentration. A further study on the benefits of meditation in Catholic schools in various countries found that Christian Meditation practice is an effective strategy to promote children’s self-esteem and wellbeing and to improve social and learning behaviours.

Ultimately, I believe we should help all pupils internalise their ‘interior’ capabilities and God-given talents, building confidence from within themselves making them able to use these tools to help drive away the external forces which pull their attention toward their ‘exterior’ worth, such as social media. It is through this focus that I believe Catholic schools and the belief system which religion and spirituality instils can help promote the growth of the whole child and thus develop intrinsic resilience and self-agency which they can draw upon while navigating life’s hardships.

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