Mental health program to be rolled out across hundreds of rural schools

By Shannon Jenkins

February 12, 2021


Thousands of children attending 600 rural and regional primary schools will have access to mental health resources, with the government this week committing $2.5 million to a mindfulness social and emotional learning program.

The evidence-based program, which is delivered by not-for-profit Smiling Mind, will be rolled out across government, Catholic and independent primary schools in communities that are experiencing disadvantage.

Health minister Greg Hunt said that while students and their families have faced many challenges during COVID-19, Smiling Minds would ensure more children can access mental health support and “help keep their education on track”.

Schools in South Australia and Queensland joined the program in November 2020, but applications for the initiative are now open across the country.

Participating schools will receive free access to training and resources, with the program delivered online over the course of three terms.

Teachers will receive training and a range of resources that will support the development of sustainable mental health habits, and help them implement mindfulness-based social and emotional learning strategies in the classroom.

They will also be given access to the newly developed Smiling Mind Learning Hub, which will give teachers in remote areas the opportunity to connect and share experiences with educators across the country who are also participating in the program.

Read more: Government must address barriers to education in rural and remote areas, inquiry finds

The skills taught through the program offer benefits such as more engaged and focused students, calmer classrooms, greater emotional regulation, and increased resilience, according to Smiling Mind CEO and clinical psychologist Dr Addie Wootten.

She has argued that the need for such training is “urgent”.

“We are in the middle of a mental health crisis and, with one in seven children experiencing mental illness in any given year, it’s a crisis that’s getting worse. If we want to see a meaningful reduction in the instances of mental illness in Australia, it is critical that we deliver proactive, prevention-focused mental health support from an early age,” Wootten said.

“By offering an online, evidence-based mindfulness program, we are able to provide Australian children with equal access to mental health tools, without cost and regardless of where they are located.”

Half of all mental health issues emerge before the age of 14 years, according to the World Health Organisation. Hunt noted that poor mental health also affects learning, but prevention and early intervention can help minimise the impact of mental illness.

Read more: When it comes to mental health, what’s good for parents is good for children


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