Education Supporting Mental Health and Wellbeing for Vulnerable Young People and Communities

By Associate Professor Helen Stokes
Co-leader, Mental Health and Society Research Program, Melbourne Social Equity Institute
Academic Coordinator, Master of Instructional Leadership, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Wednesday 10 June 2020

As I stand here at my desk at home, I was thinking about the many educators I work with through my teaching, research and engagement, and the important and vital role they play in supporting their communities. Here are just a few glimpses of the work they have been doing and what that has meant for both themselves and the communities in which they work.

A principal of a small country primary school talked to me about the community around his school. The area is economically depressed through the downturn in dairy farming and many of the families do not have a computer at home. Some of the students were accessing their mother’s mobile phone to try and complete their schoolwork. The principal is currently completing a professional masters with us. One of the other students in the course had offered computers from his school to give to the families. The principal was able to take computers to all the families who needed them. The school, through the school bus run, also delivers food and meals throughout the community. As he commented, with the removal of many other institutions from rural areas, the school has now become the centre of the community.

Another principal works with young people in detention. They also were able to deliver computers to the young people to enable them to continue education while not being able to deliver face to face classes. But remote teaching was difficult. For him, one of the most important moments in his career was seeing the joy on the faces of the young people as they returned to face to face classes with their teachers last week. For them the social interaction with their teachers is so important for their mental health and wellbeing.

This need for social interaction and that school is seen as a safe place is a common theme for vulnerable young people across alternative educational settings catering for those who have disengaged from the mainstream. The young people were asking them not to close. The schools tried to stay open as long as possible and the teachers did extensive work trying to maintain contact with the young people when they could not be open. For many, any schoolwork was again done through using a mobile phone as most did not have a place at home with a computer and desk.

All of these educators work with either vulnerable young people or vulnerable communities. All have faced issues with a lack of technology to support virtual communication as face to face was no longer possible and they all talk about the need to maintain social relationships for the mental health and wellbeing of these young people and communities. While some social interaction and learning was possible with the provision of technology, it is the face to face interaction with educators that these vulnerable young people consistently asked for to be safe and maintain their wellbeing.

Associate Professor Helen Stokes is the Academic Coordinator of the Master of Instructional Leadership in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE) and co-leads the Melbourne Social Equity Institute's Mental Health and Society Research Program. She has managed and worked on a wide range of research projects internationally, nationally and locally over her 23 years at MGSE including young people, school disengagement and trauma informed education. Her current research focuses on leading trauma aware communities of practice in schools.

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