Schools exert powerful influences not only on children and young people’s educational life chances but also on their mental health. The Schools, Learning and Mental Health project aims to understand this relationship by posing the question, how are specific aspects of schooling linked to mental health and, relatedly, what are the consequences for children’s academic achievement?
The project focuses on young people in grades 8-10 (age 13-16 years old) in lower secondary school in Norway. Adolescence is a particularly important formative time in which young people make the transition towards young adulthood, a period associated with their emergence from the family, greater degrees of independence, and the development of a social-self and a social identity. In this regard, schools are viewed as developmental contexts, which through their policies and practices vary in the extent to which they create the circumstances for various outcomes such as mental health to be realized.
The project involves mixed methods and is organized into four work packages, each with a specific focus.
This research is funded by the Norwegian Research Council.
The terms used to discuss various dimensions of mental health can be confusing. In this project we use the term ‘mental health’ as an umbrella term to encompass the full spectrum of mental states. Under this umbrella we use the following three terms:
• ‘psychological distress’ to refer to undiagnosed psychological difficulties and discomfort;
• ‘mental illness’ to refer to diagnosed mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, and,
• ‘mental wellbeing’ to refer to positive mental health.
All three dimensions of what is broadly referred to as ‘mental health’ are viewed as central to understanding school engagement, learning and academic achievement. Aspects of the psycho-social environment – for example, the school and classroom ‘climates’ – are increasingly viewed as central to understanding mental health development as well as prevention of psychological distress and mental illness.
It is worth saying a little more about mental wellbeing because it is the most recent term to emerge in the field and is referred to as a concept that is relevant to education. Westerhof and Keyes (2010) emphasize three core components of positive mental health: (i) emotional wellbeing (happiness and satisfaction with life); psychological wellbeing (positive functioning through engagement and fulfilment); and, (iii) social wellbeing (positive social functioning through relationships). Exploring mental wellbeing therefore requires attention to the psychosocial aspects of schooling that might influence these dimensions.
According to this conceptualization, the absence of mental illness or psychological distress does not necessarily imply the presence of high levels of wellbeing.
One further point to make is the challenge of translating many terms from the English language to the Norwegian language. In this regard, it is difficult to find a Norwegian word that fully reflects the concept of mental wellbeing as described above. We therefore use the English term even when writing in the Norwegian language. This has some precedent in Norway: see for example the Helsedirektoratet report Wellbeing på norsk, 2015. The term mental wellbeing is also increasingly used in a broader international context.
Westerhof, G., & Keyes, C. (2010). Mental illness and mental health: The two continua model across the lifespan. Journal of Adult Development, 17, 110-119.