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Minister Frances Fitzgerald T.D. Launch of Mental Health in Education Seminar

Thursday 1st March 2012


I am delighted to have been asked to speak at this important conference on mental health in the Irish education system. It is important that we have dialogue and engagement on what is a fundamentally important issue for students, their parents, and the education system itself. This conference provides the opportunity to present a range of perspectives on the current processes, any gaps, and how they might be addressed.

The fact that today’s conference is being arranged by a ‘coalition’ is worth reflecting on. A coalition, by definition, is a ‘coming-together’ of many disparate groups for a common goal. I should know, I work in one.

I think given the nature of children’s mental heath; and more critically the nature of the multi-faceted responses required, I think it only right that we have a ‘coming-together’ in this area.

So I wish to commend the Children’s Mental Health Coalition for bringing together 50 members - representing service providers, the education sector, human rights and children’s rights organizations.

The coalition has developed as an important voice in advocating for better service provision to address children’s mental health issues.
Children’s Mental Health
According to the HSE one in ten Irish children or adolescents suffer from a mental heath disorder.

However many more children can, at certain times of great trauma or ‘transition point’ in their young lives, suffer from significant stress which can leave a lasting impact.

The ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ longitudinal study of 3 year olds and nine year olds provides important indicators and a wealth of qualitative data on children's well being. These reports show that just over three quarters of nine year olds have experienced some form  of stressful life event, most commonly the death of a close family member, or moving house, but also separation of parents, serious illness in the family, conflict between parents, moving country etc.

For all of these children it is important that the services are there and available…

I note how the Coalition’s Manifesto makes it clear that this is very much an inter-Departmental issue, in terms of the interface between education and health and community services, and a wider societal issue. 

As Minister for Children & Youth Affairs, I couldn’t agree more.

One of the reasons for my Department’s existence is ensure a seamless whole-of-government approach to important children’s issues such as mental health.

Although I must admit, that the mental health area already has a very committed and competent champion in Minister Kathleen Lynch and I wish to acknowledge her efforts over the past year, including the securing of €35m of ring-fenced funding for mental health services as committed to in the Programme for Government.

Today’s Conference
Today’s conference focuses on the theme of mental health in the Irish education system.

Last year I attended a special forum entitled ‘Working together for Positive Youth Mental Health which was convened by our former President Mary McAleese at Áras an Uachtaráin and I must say I was energised by the young participants at this Presidential Forum. Indeed I am constantly impressed by the openness with which so many young people address the issue of mental health

However a key finding from the Presidential Forum, raised directly by the young participants, was the importance of school settings in supporting young people who may be suffering from anxiety or emotional difficulties.

Positive mental health is about promoting well being – in terms of personal, social, emotional, physical and aesthetic well- being.  It makes sense therefore that our schools play a lead role promoting positive mental health. Already this is being achieved in so many ways:

Firstly, through providing a positive teaching and learning environment and a whole school ethos where students feel that they belong and are valued; where their self esteem is promoted and they get the opportunity to experience success;
Secondly, through the pastoral care and guidance provided through our schools;
Thirdly  through the Social Personal and Health Education curriculum, which is mandatory from the infant cycle through to the end of junior cycle;
Fourthly, through the integration of relevant themes into other areas of the curriculum. We know the importance of the arts, drama, PE and sport as a vehicle for self expression and personal enrichment.,
Finally through additional supports for students with special needs and support from the National Educational Psychological Service. 

SPHE
On the issue of SPHE, I know that some concerns have been expressed, for example by school principals in the report in regard to the level of training provided in the colleges of education specifically for SPHE.

I believe it is vitally important that we continue to develop and support the consistent teaching of SPHE curriculum.

A major re-structuring and extension of initial teacher training programmes is currently being planned as part of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy while a review of existing college programmea is under way by the Teaching Council. Improving SPHE training will be core objective of these reviews.

At the same time, the Inspectorate of the Department of Education and Skills is currently finalising an evaluation report on the implementation of SPHE in second level schools, which is due to be published later this year.

The Department also works closely with the HSE in the implementation of support for post primary teachers. In the 2010/11 school year alone, 4,770 second-level teachers engaged with the SPHE support service.

There are also many useful resources out there supports teachers in the more effective delivery of the mental health promotion dimension of SPHE. Last October, I launched another resource entitled ‘Working Things Out Through SPHE’ which has been developed by Child and Adolescent Services in the Mater Hospital working with the SPHE support service and is now being rolled out nationally. 



Bullying
Another issue which needs to be considered, in particular in our school settings, is that of bullying.

Research from the ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ study highlights how over 24% of 9 to 17 year olds have reported been bullied; while research by the Anti-Bullying Centre Trinity College has highlighted how one in four girls and one in six boys in Ireland have been involved in cyber-bullying either as a victim, bully or both.

Bullying can have an absolutely terrible and corrosive impact on our children and young people, on their confidence, their self-esteem, their mental health.

The affects of bullying can last for years.

Bullying remains a dark stain on the rich fabric of our children’s lives.

A range of approaches are in place to address this. I have already mentioned the SPHE programme which is such response. But my own department is also playing a lead role in responding.

My Department, in response to concerns over homophobic bullying,  has recently issued “Including Lesbian, Gay And Bisexual Students In School Policies – Guidelines  For Principals” to schools.

Also, the National Education Welfare Board, which now comes under my Department’s remit, has issued guidelines requiring school to address bullying through a code of behaviour and anti-bullying policy.  Compliance by schools is now inspected by Department of Education Inspectorate during Whole School Evaluations.

So while responses to bullying are high on the agenda, I have no doubt we can do more; and that we can learn from international experience. With this is mind, I look forward to the outcomes of this conference.

Conclusion
I know schools are playing their part within the resources available to promote positive mental health among students and to create an atmosphere in schools where students are supported to be confident and resilient learners, to experience success in a range of areas, and to feel valued members of their school community.

However, there is much we can do to work better together and to address fragmentation issues in the system. In that context, I  look forward to today's debate on how we can address the gaps, to support better lives for children and young people.

Finally, may I again thank the Children’s Mental Health Coalition and Amnesty International Ireland for arranging today’s conference.

 

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