Prophets of the Future 2: Mental Health and Catholic Schools

In this series, MEduc4 students on the ‘Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues’ elective course reflect on how a Catholic educational perspective can enhance school’s’ approach to current challenges.

Colette Wilson, MEduc4

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One of the challenges we face today in Catholic education is the increasing rate of mental illness in our young people. Figures from Audit Scotland in 2018 showed 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5-16 had been diagnosed with a mental illness (Audit Scotland, online). This figure has risen, and in 2022 reports suggest that 1 in 6 children and young people have now been diagnosed with a mental health condition. That is 5 children out of a class of 30. Over half of mental health conditions are diagnosed before the child has reached the age of 14 (Local Government Association, online). Evidence suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profoundly negative impact on the health and wellbeing of our young people. There are many experiences and issues that can affect the health and wellbeing of the child and certain groups of young people are more susceptible to negative influences on their health and wellbeing and research suggests that this imbalance has exacerbated since the pandemic (SPICe, 2022).

Mental wellbeing and schools

Feeling good and being able to function efficiently, being able to maintain positive relationships with others and being able to live a life where you believe has a sense of purpose are all positive indicators of mental wellbeing (Scottish Government, 2018).
What can we as a Catholic School and as Catholic educators do to support our young people and in particular those suffering from mental health conditions? Catholic education is viewed as being ‘Christocentric’ where Catholic schools centre their education around the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ. A school community with Jesus Christ at its centre ‘‘must work for the healing and transformation of the whole community including those considered to be peripheral or marginalised’’ (Keiran and Hessian, 2005:124). This is Our Faith (TIOF) highlights Jesus Christ at the centre of the Catholic school and asks for us as Catholic educators to ensure children are provided opportunities to encounter Jesus Christ. Teachers are often the first point of contact when a child is experiencing negative effects on their mental health and teachers can often feel like they are not equipped with the proper tools to deal with certain behaviours or situations nor do they believe they have the experience to deal with such issues (Lowry et al, 2022). However, the objective of the Catholic school which is included in the Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland is to ensure that the staff are supported with their spiritual and professional development and provided with the tools to ensure that each child who has been made in the image of God feels included within the school community and that their voices are heard.

Purpose and happiness

Evidence suggests that there is a positive relationship between religion and individual happiness and that young people who celebrate and participate in their religion are happier (Francis et al, 2020). One of the aims in the Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland is the responsibility that the school community will share in the experience of prayer. Evidence suggests that people who pray were less likely to display signs of mental illness and that they were able to relate to a greatness beyond their own existence. They were able to understand life as having a purpose and meaning and how they as an individual are part of this life and all its greatness (Francis et al, 2008). Mountain (2005) suggested that prayer was a positive part of a child’s daily life, and that prayer could be used as a way to get through difficult periods in a child’s life. Prayer allows the child to connect with God individually or as part of a religious community.

Petitionary prayer

A potential whole-school approach to deal with the challenges of mental health is petitionary prayer, which can help the whole child to feel nurtured, developed and supported. Petitionary prayer is considered as a request to God for something using prayer (Stump, 1979). We can allow the young people to pray for what they feel is important to them whether this be something they are struggling with or something that is happening in their family or the world around them. Through communal prayer and religious activity children can feel part of a community and share a sense of belonging. Evidence suggests that teaching the technique of prayer to children should allow for them to make personal significance. Prayer is an important part of the child’s spirituality where they can explore their relationship with God, their relationships with friends and family, their relationship with the environment around them and allows them to be more aware of their own needs and emotions (Mountain, 2005). We can also prioritise making petitionary prayer more visible in the school: examples of this are the children working collaboratively to create prayer trees where they can add their own prayer intentions. Praying for others allows children to understand that prayer is obtainable for them also. Prayer trees can be construed in several ways but can be seen as a communal space where children can pray together and where they can feel like they belong. People who pray as part of a community feel a sense of belonging and experience a shared acceptance (Mountain, 2005). Petitionary prayer therefore has great potential as one creative technique that can help tackle the challenges arising from mental health issues faced within our schools.

Using the Compendium in Catholic Education 3: Prayer

Dr Leonardo Franchi (Lecturer, School of Education, University of Glasgow)

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But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret (Matthew 6:6).

Catholic educators will appreciate that to know Jesus involves both study and prayer. The Compendium recognises this by its inclusion of an Appendix containing common prayers and doctrinal formulae.

The phrase ‘prayerful study’ encapsulates neatly the modus operandi of the Catholic scholar. Authentic Catholic Education will draw heavily on the faith of the teacher who has ‘known’ Jesus in prayerful study in his/her own formation and, consequently, teaches in a prayerful yet scholarly way.

A second point to note here is the structure of this section. The prayers are also presented in Latin as well as English. Some may regard this as a hankering after an alleged pre-Conciliar spirituality yet the Second Vatican Council itself recommended that Latin remain in use in the Latin Church (Sacrosanctum Concilium 36, 54). The Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI Sacramentum caritatis, goes further, asking that ‘the better-known prayers of the Church’s tradition should be recited in Latin’ (62). The use of Latin is a clear reminder of one of the roots of Catholicism. It is a common heritage which binds us together.

There are also prayers from the Byzantine, Coptic and Syro-Maronite traditions, reminding us that the Church can accommodate within its intrinsic unity a legitimate diversity of liturgical expression. This is a message which is needed in a fractured society which often looks upon difference with some suspicion.

Practical Exercise: Catholic educators may wish to consider including a short daily reading from the Compendium as part of their prayer life. The 598 short questions and answers are, in many cases, excellent points for meditation although they should not replace Scripture in meditative prayer (see Compendium, 570). This is a practice which could be recommended to students: perhaps some could be encouraged to come together informally for such a purpose – with their tutors there too.

Concluding Remarks

Catholic education is a gift to live, celebrate and hand on to others. We ask Mary, the Help of all Christians and Sedes sapientiae, to intercede for us.

A version of this paper was published in The Sower, July-September, 2007.