Teach happiness in schools: expert

By Cassandra Mason

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Schools need to talk about happiness and wellbeing as many young people seek help. Photo/Thinkstock.
Schools need to talk about happiness and wellbeing as many young people seek help. Photo/Thinkstock.

Teaching happiness skills to school pupils should be part of the national curriculum, a University of Canterbury researcher says.

But a Northland principal says schools already have enough social responsibility.

Dr Annie Soutter wants more done to promote wellbeing in New Zealand schools given our high rates of youth depression and suicide.

"In schools, what I've found is how students think or feel tends to be a separate part of the school experience."

Academic achievement, attendance and sporting prowess took precedence over emotional wellbeing, she said.

Okaihau College principal Alan Forgie said he wasn't enthusiastic about introducing "happiness skills" to the curriculum.

"I'd like to see that we offer a rounded education, and you can focus on things like that to the detriment of everything else."

Okaihau had staff trained in looking out for kids who were likely to harm themselves, he said.

And peer support programmes made sure new students knew where to turn if necessary.

But the curriculum was already full.

"Do you keep adding social responsibility into a school's curriculum?" Mr Forgie asked.

However, Dr Soutter said there was room for teaching happiness and wellbeing as part of the school curriculum because an increasing number of young people were seeking help.

"Youthline gets about 10,000 texts a month from students who are needing support."

This could be as simple as students writing regular "gratitude letters" to people who had supported them, keeping a journal of their feelings and buddying up with senior students and staff.

An exercise requiring students to write down three good things that had happened to them had "tremendous results" in trials by psychologists in the United States.

"They [the exercises] have shown some really positive impacts on mood and a decrease in physical symptoms [of depression]."

While the responsibility of promoting wellbeing didn't fall exclusively on teachers, it made sense to integrate it into the school system, Dr Soutter said.

The latest United Nations World Happiness Report ranked New Zealanders 13th out of the 156 nations.

We slipped from eighth spot in last year's report, with a reported 2.1 per cent decline in happiness levels.

We also have one of the highest youth suicide rates, with males fourth-highest and females second-highest in the developed world.

Between July 2012 and June 2013, 69 young Kiwis aged between 10 and 19 took their own lives.

Meanwhile, a 2012 Auckland University survey of 8500 high school students found 29.1 per cent of girls harmed themselves deliberately in the previous year - up from 26 per cent in the 2007 survey.

The number of boys who harmed themselves also increased slightly to 17.9 per cent.

One-in-six girls and one-in-12 boys showed significant depressive symptoms.

New web-based therapy programmes aimed at teenagers are showing promising results at curbing our alarming youth suicide rate.

Otago University is studying the effects of the online programmes on teens experiencing depression.

Users complete online evidence-based exercises, such as cognitive behaviour therapy or problem-solving therapy.

APNZ

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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