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Why we need to make student mental wellbeing a priority

Dr Jamie Chiu, a keynote speaker at the IB Global Conference in Hong Kong, talks about how schools can support students’ mental health

Dr Jamie Chiu is a clinical psychologist and founder of The Brightly Project. As a teen, Chiu struggled with depression and anxiety, but fell through the cracks because she showed no visible signs.

Dr Jamie Chiu

Now through The Brightly Project, Chiu empowers schools and teachers to feel more confident, capable, and knowledgeable in their efforts to proactively support students at risk of suicide.

In her keynote speech at the IB Global Conference in Hong Kong (24-26 March 2019), Chiu will discuss student mental health and well-being in high-performing schools and share the patterns that have emerged through analysing mental health data from several thousand secondary school students.

From your research and work with schools, is there a robust link between academic stress and anxiety or depression?

Academic stress, and whether it is behind the rising trend of anxiety and depression is a hot topic.

When I first started implementing mental health screening in schools in 2011, the data showed that depressed and anxious students were highlighting friendship and family problems as their most significant issues. But recently, and especially in high-performing schools that I work with, students are singling out academic stress as the biggest reported stressor.

What I am seeing is a generation of students who are growing up under constant evaluation, high-stakes testing, and being ranked against their peers. In fact, the American Psychological Association released a study in October 2018, which found that students are feeling more stressed than adults.

But as much as we wish for a simple explanation for why so many young people are anxious and depressed, there just isn’t enough evidence to point the finger at academic stress. There is the question of why one stressed teen would develop depression and another would not.

Diving deeper into the data, there are differences that emerge between teens who are stressed and depressed, and teens who are stressed but not depressed. Perhaps not surprisingly, part of the picture is whether the student feels equipped to cope with the stress and how hopeful they feel about their situation.

What protects students from the negative effects of stress?

There are many elements that contribute to protecting a student from the negative effects of stress and poor mental health. The most important protective factor is when a student has at least one adult in their life who makes them feel supported, valued, and cared for. There is great research backing this up­—in 2015, a Harvard study concluded that every child who ends up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.

Why this is so crucial for schools to pay attention to is that for those students who don’t have a stable home life, just having one teacher who makes them feel cared for can act as that protective buffer.

What factors put students at higher risk of mental health issues?


There are many factors, but one that is consistently detrimental is when a student gets bullied, either online or face-to-face.

On an individual level, being bullied is a traumatic experience that can leave a young person hyper vigilant, constantly scanning the environment for danger, and on guard to fight, flee or freeze. Operating in such ‘survival mode’ takes up a lot of mental capacity, and as a result, the student’s cognitive ability to make decisions, remember things, focus on a task, and accomplish long-term goals are impaired.

Furthermore, when a young person experiences bullying, it stunts their social emotional development and impairs their capacity to empathize and trust others. They are also more likely to develop negative thought patterns where they tend to blame themselves for situations outside of their control, discard the positives and magnify the negatives, and react disproportionately to perceived threats.

A child who is being bullied can develop a very damaging narrative of “everything that is going wrong is my fault, I can’t trust anyone, I should just give up”, which has a long-standing detrimental effect on their ability to build meaningful and trusting relationships.

I believe bullying is an issue where schools can make a very positive impact in eliminating this risk factor.

How we can teach students that their self-worth is not tied to their academic success?

Teenagers who often receive grades lower than what they perceive to be expected of them have shared with me that they feel they are a “loser” and that they are “dumb”. Many high-achievers I’ve worked with also fall into the trap of basing their entire identity around being a good student and can find themselves unable to deal with any academic failures or setbacks. And this self-narrative of “If I’m not good at school, it means I’m not good enough” has lasting detrimental effects across all areas of a young person’s development.

There are many ways we can teach students that their self-worth is much more than their grades. One of which is to create more opportunities for students to develop their strengths and contribute in meaningful ways.

One brilliant example was at a school that launched a robotics lunchtime programme, which trained low-achieving students to teach the younger grades on how to use the equipment and mentor their projects. Why I love this so much is because it offered traditionally academically weaker students a sense of responsibility, a sense of recognition, and also made them feel that they were important to the school.

How can schools effectively support students suffering from stress, anxiety and depression?

You may have a student seeing the school counselor and feel really supported and encouraged in their office, and then they walk out, right back into their schedule (and difficulties) again. The thing is, the school is full of teachers who want to support their students, but may feel intimated and uncertain about how to do so. What I’ve seen make a massive impact is when the school ensures everyone feels more confident in how to support students with mental health issues, and that it’s not only the counselor’s job to help these children.

At one school I worked with that trained their form tutors and head of years in having one-to-one conversations with students about their mental health, we saw that all students (and not just those who were struggling) felt more cared for and supported, and felt reassured in knowing that their teachers were there to talk if they needed to.

Related posts:

Mental health: The silent crisis

What value do you place on your students’ mental wellbeing?

How do you support students with a mental illness