There is a silent killer in our schools, stalking the youth of Australia. It is silent because we don't talk about it. It is not cancer or obesity. It is suicide, and as many as five Australian children attempt it every day.
About 100 Australian boys and girls complete suicide each year. That's one bright light extinguished every four days. Research indicates that for every suicide there are 10 to 20 attempts. That equates to as many as five children a day across Australia.
The NSW Department of Education directs staff not to engage with students about suicide. It wants to avoid normalising it, avoid a copy-cat syndrome.
Yet a side effect of not talking about suicide is that teachers do not know how to recognise warning signs. A study done at James Cook University last year found that 85 per cent of teachers could not identify a suicidal student.
Mental illness has increased in successive generations of Australian youth. About a quarter of teenagers suffer significant psychological distress at one time and more than 7000 young people a year are admitted to hospital after self-harming. Seven thousand.
Schoolchildren spend more hours a week, face to face, with their teachers than with any other adult. The World Health Organisation tells us that our current crop of year 7 boys and girls will face a greater threat from depression than from any other disease by the time they reach 30.
Some stress is brought on because of trends in society: the rise of individualism and consumerism; a decline in a sense of community and of the importance of the family unit. Each of these trends has a direct impact on mental health.
Clearly, many children thrive despite society's influence. But too many of our youth are unaware, or apathetic as they race headlong into what the WHO predicts will be a depression epidemic by 2030.
Teachers want to know their role in helping to address this and whether a back-to-basics curriculum meets the needs of today's youth? I believe we need a national curriculum that addresses the demands of this century, not the last. The draft curriculum has been widely criticised as being overcrowded and old-fashioned.
In the digital age, with information at the fingertips of every student, teachers are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge. So let's use our time and resources more appropriately for the 21st-century child.
The new curriculum must educate young people towards a greater understanding of the world and their role in it. I propose stripping some of its content to free-up time in schools for students to engage in their strengths and their passions.
Professor Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, agrees: "By engaging one's strengths and passions in the service of others, one can inoculate against depression.''
This article was first published on The National Times on November 2, 2010.
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