Protecting mental health in childhood is urgent: what role do schools have?


In the early stages of life, children and adolescents must cope with various stressors. The beginning of compulsory schooling is one of them. It requires a change of routines in the child and the beginning of a stage with greater autonomy, without the continued support of the parents.

In addition to the usual stressors, atypical situations may arise in which the child must put his psychological coping resources to the test. For example, the marital breakdown of the parents, the death of a relative, financial problems at home or parental stress.

An unexpected stressor has been the pandemic, which has posed a significant threat to the emotional well-being of children and adolescents. Confinement at home, the closure of schools, the change in routines, the lack of information or biased information, social distance or fear of contagion have impacted the child and adolescent population, increasing their vulnerability to presenting mental health problems.

A public health problem

Psychological disorders are today a major public health problem. In its report The State of the World’s Children 2021 , UNICEF estimates that 13% of young people between the ages of 10 and 19 suffer from a mental disorder. In 50% of cases, mental disorders begin before the age of 14, according to a meta-analytic study that included almost 200 epidemiological studies .

As the Commission of the European Communities mentioned in 2005 , promoting mental health in childhood and adolescence is an investment in the future, since the first years of life are decisive. Failure to detect a psychological disorder in time has important consequences. When they take time to detect and do not receive adequate intervention, disorders persist over time and can be precursors to other problems in adolescence or adulthood.

The role of the school environment

In Spain, schooling is compulsory from 6 to 16 years old. This means that a child will spend at least 10 years of his life in a school, staying there for a minimum of 5 hours a day. Undoubtedly, educational centers have a very relevant role as a place for learning knowledge.

However, its role in the child’s personal development is no less important. School is the place where they socialize with their peers, where their autonomy is strengthened by staying away from their parents for the first time, where they enhance their ability to manage their emotions, where they put their self-control to the test and where they learn to manage their frustration when interacting with the rest.

This is how the World Health Organization considers it, highlighting the role that educational centers have in promoting the well-being of children and adolescents. A recent report ( WHO Guideline on School Health Services, 2021 ) emphasizes that the school environment is not only a place for learning knowledge, but is an ideal resource for the acquisition of social-emotional skills.

Educational centers offer a unique opportunity for the detection and prevention of psychological problems, since they have the advantage of bringing minors together daily for years, thus facilitating possible interventions.

Problem detection and skill learning

Promoting emotional well-being and detecting psychological difficulties are two objectives that can be effectively addressed in schools if the necessary resources are invested. Schools and colleges are ideal places to attend to mental health problems, since they allow any child to have access to these valuable resources. This is shown by some studies that have managed to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in children aged 6 to 12, by applying emotional resilience programs in the school context.

The best treatment for psychological problems is prevention: the sooner the better. Having psychological resources to deal with life’s adversities reduces the vulnerability of children to the appearance of mental health problems. Learning to manage their emotions, to solve problems that arise when interacting with others, to control their anxiety, or to eliminate irrational thoughts that do not help them, are very useful skills that prepare them for life.

Psychologists at school

In addition to the acquisition of socio-emotional skills, the presence of psychologists with training in mental health in schools would help detect psychological difficulties early, preventing their chronification. Identifying such problems is facilitated by the fact that children spend a lot of time in schools. Any socio-emotional change can be easily perceived by teachers, who know the evolution of each child. Having a psychologist in the school setting would minimize the time from when a child’s behavior gets the attention of a teacher until the problem is detected and given psychological attention.

However, the performance of such valuable work requires a greater presence of psychologists in schools, whose ratio before the pandemic was already five times less than necessary. Having psychologists in the school environment is now more necessary than ever.

Faced with unusual situations such as those experienced in this time of pandemic, immediate actions are required to curb its negative effects. Detecting psychological problems early and providing children and adolescents with coping resources are two necessary strategies to protect their present and future mental health.

Author Bios: Mireia Orgilés is University professor. Expert in Child Psychological Treatment and Jose Pedro Espada is Professor of Psychology both at Miguel Hernández University