The Cult of Wellbeing Infecting Our Schools


Raymond Burns

In 2021, the Queensland government launched a $100 million wellbeing program for its schools. The promotional literature announced that “additional wellbeing professionals” would supplement “guidance officers, school-based youth health nurses, youth support coordinators and other wellbeing support staff”. It also includes a pilot program for GPs in selected Queensland schools. Victoria has gone even further, allocating $200 million for a Mental Health Fund, which will be rolled out in all regional schools by Term 3, 2022. In New South Wales, the Wellbeing Framework for Schools insists that a focus on mere student welfare is too narrow. The Department explains that wellbeing covers the “cognitive, emotional, social, physical and spiritual” dimensions of students’ lives. It is repeatedly claimed that promoting wellbeing and mental health will be instrumental to achieving academic excellence.

What we are witnessing here is a major shift in the telos of education. Rather than pursuing the core competency of teaching a specific discipline, the modern educator is expected to serve an increasingly therapeutic role, pursuing unmeasurable goals such as wellbeing, self-esteem and connectedness. In the light of worsening academic outcomes in Australia, it is worth asking why education departments are now setting expansive new wellbeing goals for themselves. Should the bureaucrats who have overseen years of declining test scores, and high rates of teacher attrition, really be intervening in the mental health problems of adolescents? Can maths teachers who have failed to teach fractions to Year 8 reasonably be expected to instil GEM (gratitude, empathy and mindfulness) in the next generation?

This essay appears in December’s Quadrant.
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The patchy history of previous welfare initiatives suggests that the current wellbeing push will not meet its optimistic goals. In fact, there is good reason to believe that many “wellbeing” activities will be shoddily planned or redolent of self-help quackery. Even more worryingly, some of them involve enthusiastic amateurs trying their hand at counselling and psychotherapy. Worst of all, by teaching students to catastrophise, employ emotional reasoning and obsess over small risks, the “wellbeing” approach to education may even be a significant contributor to mental health problems among young people. Responsible educators cannot just wave this dubious new ideology through.

The prominence that wellbeing is now given by Australian educators is typically justified by worsening mental health rates amongst teenagers. A widely quoted statistic, dating from 2013 data, is that one in seven Australian children between four and eleven years of age experiences a mental disorder. Headspace, a leading Australian organisation in adolescent mental health, offers far more apocalyptic figures. They have drawn attention to a 2017 survey of students in which 70 per cent of respondents rated their mental health as “poor or fair”. The same survey found that “two-thirds reported high or very high psychological distress over the past 12 months”. With this justification, some educators want to reduce the focus on academic standards in favour of a holistic approach to “wellbeing”. For instance, Allan, Longmuir and Grove, academics from Monash University, penned an October 2020 article arguing that Victorian schools needed to focus on “connection and wellbeing”, arguing that a sense of belonging is “a critical precursor to effective learning”.

Promoters of the “wellbeing” approach seldom that acknowledge Australian schools have been focusing on welfare for decades, with dozens of well-intentioned initiatives failing to create a “well” student body. It is worth looking at some of the previous welfare policies which predate the current mental health crisis.

As far back as 1986, the New South Wales Department of Education released the Student Welfare Policy Statement, which mandated a welfare focus in all New South Wales schools. The document states that “Schools must be concerned for the well-being [my emphasis] of young people for whom they are responsible. Student welfare is therefore a basic aspect of the work of all involved in education.” Many of the principles which the document outlines, such as an ethos of supportiveness and cultural sensitivity, prefigure those in the current Wellbeing Framework. However, this policy was really just the starting point.

A 1994 Commonwealth inquiry found that bullying was a serious problem in Australian schools, marking the beginning of extensive anti-bullying programs. By 2003, Australia had developed the National Safe Schools Framework aimed at reducing violence, bullying and other aggressive behaviour. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, many Australian jurisdictions also brought in mandatory reporting if a teacher suspected that a child was at risk of abuse, injury or neglect at home. The Disability Standards for Education (2005) made it clear that teachers had to make “reasonable adjustments” for students with a wide range of disabilities, which typically meant reworking lesson plans, learning materials and assessments, sometimes for several students in one class. A host of anti-discrimination laws also came into force, all of which applied to the education sector. First aid courses, CPR training and information sessions on anaphylaxis, ADHD and eating disorders became the norm for teachers.

Meanwhile, schools compiled ever-greater stores of information about the disabilities, disorders and allergies of students. The 2010s saw extensive new programs aimed at stopping sexual harassment, cyberbullying and homophobia. In other words, for the last forty years, Australian schools have been involving themselves in an ever-greater range of welfare issues, yet if we believe the wellbeing experts, student welfare has continued to worsen. By the start of the 2020s, UNICEF rated Australian students thirty-fifth out of thirty-eight countries in terms of child life satisfaction, and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare was reporting that up to seven out of ten children had experienced bullying in the previous twelve months.

Despite these dismal figures, we are now invited to believe that Australian schools are well equipped to lead the fight against depression and anxiety in teenagers. This brings us to the brave new world of positivity sticky notes and Tibetan singing bowls.

With hundreds of millions of dollars slated for investment in wellbeing initiatives, it is worth surveying the field to see what existing programs look like. The most luxurious model on offer is the Artemis Project at Melbourne Girls Grammar, the centrepiece of which is a $23 million community hub where students can meet with fitness and wellbeing coaches. Named after the Greek goddess of health, the centre features an indoor swimming pool, Jumpstart and High Energy rooms and an outdoor amphitheatre. While the health benefits of these facilities seem self-evident, the cult of identity is also in evidence. For the project, the school recruited a group of women architects for the project, apparently because they understand how “girls like to live and learn together”. As the puff pieces about the project make clear, the Artemis Project is not only a wellbeing initiative, but also a marketing opportunity.

While few schools have this sort of money to pour into wellbeing, a range of more affordable options are on offer, with many service operators trying to muscle in on this lucrative new market. Yogazeit Ltd runs meditation and mindfulness classes for primary school students. Their eight-week course costs a mere $1200, including the use of mindfulness bells, meditation diaries and a Tibetan singing bowl. For the dramatically inclined, there is Brainstorm Productions, which offers theatrical performances and workshops aimed at improving student welfare. Teacher testimony attests to “the positive impact of creating and seeing theatre on student wellbeing”. Moreover, it is claimed that Brainstorm’s talented thespians will help students adapt to a rapidly changing world with “compassion, intelligence and resilience”. The Wellbeing Affect offers “mental health first aid” to young Australians, and, for $550 a head, Child Australia offers teachers a two-hour certificate course called “Encouraging Empathy in Children”. Other trainers link wellbeing with a focus on sustainability—a national curricular priority since 2008—by taking students into national parks to commune with nature.

While it would be impossible to evaluate the efficacy of these programs without rigorous study, there is good reason to remain sceptical. At least part of what is going on is repackaging well-worn activities under the trendy “wellbeing” moniker. Schools have long done yoga classes, excursions to national parks and drama workshops. If decades of such activities have not prevented the current epidemic of teen anxiety and depression, why will they solve the problem now? Furthermore, many wellbeing projects appear too restricted in scope to make any difference to mental health. For instance, some teachers have endeavoured to make their students more caring by playing a board game known as “empathy bingo”. One New South Wales high school placed classroom teachers at the front gates to “meet and greet” students coming back after a Covid lockdown, claiming it was essential for student wellbeing. Another school claimed that “random acts of kindness” have been proven to help mental health, therefore requiring students to write compliments on post-its and stick them to each other’s desks. The fact that this was a teacher-led activity and not in any way “random” did not occur to any of the organisers.

Arguably the poster child of teacher-cum-therapists is Karen Wunderlich Loewe, an American teacher who “went viral” in 2019 for a lesson called “The Baggage Activity”. Her students were required to unpack their emotional baggage publicly, including “Things like suicide, parents in prison, drugs in their family, being left by their parents, death, cancer, losing pets”. The lesson, Loewe boasted, left herself and many of the students sobbing. Loewe claimed that as her students left the room, “I told them they are not alone, they are loved, and we have each other’s back.” While this lesson has been hailed as the benchmark for teaching empathy to students, what it really represents is the replacement of a traditional curriculum with group psychotherapy. And unlike regular group therapy, it is being enforced on a captive audience. While Ms Loewe earned many laurels and over 800,000 “likes” on social media, the ethics of non-specialists dabbling with therapeutic techniques is highly questionable. Before teachers rebrand themselves as wellbeing coaches, some circumspection is called for.

A much-referenced Harvard study found that an eight-week program of mindfulness can reduce stress and improve empathy. However, this does not indicate that a single mindfulness session (the norm in many schools) or a quick round of empathy bingo will do anything to improve student mental health. Moreover, many teachers have been asked to do mindfulness activities after a fifteen-minute training session using PowerPoint. Even if mindfulness has potential benefits, are these still guaranteed when the instructor has received only cursory training? When the techniques used are derived from psychotherapy, the risks are even more pronounced. Is it really wise for rank amateurs to be dabbling in the psyches of anxious teens? In answering this question, it is worth noticing the disclaimers that many wellbeing trainers have on their websites. We would do well to heed the warnings that this information is “not intended to be a substitute for professional advice”. Of course, this raises the question of why so many people without any accreditation in psychology or counselling want to style themselves as Melanie Klein. However, if we consider Haidt and Lukianoff’s work on safetyism, we might see this head-scratcher as symptomatic of a broader trend. Perhaps ill-advised “welfare” programs have been making students more anxious and fragile for decades.

In their 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind, Haidt and Lukianoff placed part of the blame for the mental health crisis on what they called the culture of safetyism. The authors argue that the understanding of safety has undergone decades of “concept creep”, to the point that it now encompasses the dangerous idea of emotional safety. The process they describe is evident in the history of welfare programs outlined earlier in this article. Every few years, Australian educators have felt the need to expand the concept of welfare, which, in a school context, is more or less synonymous with “safety”. This is especially evident in the area of anti-bullying. While the notion of bullying was once restricted to a protracted campaign of harassment, usually involving multiple bullies or a marked power differential, it is now routinely applied to a single action or comment. Likewise, when Headspace tell us that a sweeping majority of students have experienced “psychological distress” in the past year, they are implicitly urging that we do more to secure the emotional and psychological safety of students. Nor should we imagine that “safetyism concept creep” has slowed since the publication of The Coddling of the American Mind. The concept of emotional safety now encompasses preferred pronoun use and the affirmation of self-determined (and sometimes fluid) gender identities. There are many educators who would like to ban grades because of their tendency to lower self-esteem in under-achieving students. Undoubtedly, the wellbeing mania will open up new fronts for proponents of safetyism.

We are entering a brave new world in which the prime responsibility of educators is not to develop academic competence, but rather to protect students from psychological and emotional discomfort. Look, for example, at the language used by the South Australian Department of Education: “Wellbeing is about how we are doing and how we feel. Are we healthy? Do we feel safe? Do we feel like we belong? Do we have a positive sense of identity?” The word feel is used three times in five sentences and wellbeing is presented as a function of emotional safety. However, as Haidt and Lukianoff show in their book, too much “safety” can make you mentally ill.

The Coddling of the American Mind should be required reading for the army of educators calling for a never-ending expansion of wellbeing programs. The authors write:

Like the immune system, children must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits, and in age-appropriate ways), or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions.

However, the opposite is happening in Australian classrooms. Rather than challenge, the focus is now on ensuring the emotional comfort of students throughout the learning process. In the Australian classroom, one of the buzzwords of recent years has been scaffolding. It is not enough that students are given two months to complete a 500-word assignment. They are also given planners (a form of scaffolding) which will tell them, sentence by sentence, what sort of information needs to come next. Moreover, they have a right to exemplars of previous “A” level responses, from which they can model their own assignments. If standing up in front of a class for a speaking assignment is too stressful, they will often be allowed to record it at home and submit a video instead. At one school where I worked, speaking assessments were deemed too stressful for socially anxious Year 9 students. Therefore, English speeches were cancelled for that year and replaced by a viva voce examination, where students orally answered questions about the class novel away from their peers. Later in the year, a team of counsellors was on stand-by for students from other grades in case the thought of public speaking provoked panic attacks.

As Haidt and Lukianoff demonstrate, this mollycoddling actually hinders the development of resilience. Far from enhancing student welfare, teachers are now depriving students of opportunities to acquire important skills. The authors warn, “By shielding children from every possible risk, we may lead them to react with exaggerated fear to situations that aren’t risky at all and isolate them from the adult skills that they will one day have to master.” Many jobs require workers to give presentations to their colleagues and customers. If schools do not allow students a chance to develop these skills for fear of stressing them, they are actually doing students a great disservice.

On a related point, Haidt and Lukianoff note that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), often termed the gold standard of psychotherapy, not only teaches people to avoid catastrophising about small setbacks, but also to question the truth of emotional reasoning. CBT encourages people to “seek out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that ‘feels unsafe’)” and to “free yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings)”. Compare this with the questions South Australian students are being told to ask themselves: “Do we feel safe? Do we feel like we belong?” Why does the South Australian “wellbeing” framework encourage students to engage in emotional reasoning and obsess over small risks? Sadly, the impulse is as common as it is wrongheaded. In Australian schools, the mantra is now that every complaint, however frivolous or vexatious, must be taken seriously. Some students are running to year advisers or counsellors about every minor upset, and teachers are expected to lead “restorative justice” sessions in which students reflect on hurt feelings. Many teachers seem oblivious to the risk that they are encouraging emotional reasoning and undermining the development of resilience in students.

A related point is that educators are increasingly concerned with removing allegedly harmful classics from classrooms and curricula. The modern school has been purged of texts which do not conform with progressive orthodoxies on gender, race and class issues and the environment. Ironically enough, many of the new “safe” books, such as novels and poems from activist authors, typify the “groups are either good or evil” mindset which Haidt and Lukianoff describe as psychologically unhealthy.

By and large, the mainstream media have acted as a cheerleader for the wellbeing push in schools. Noting record rates of anxiety, depression and suicide amongst Generation Z, they have accepted that bold action is required. However, few have questioned whether teachers are the right people to tackle an epidemic of clinical depression and social anxiety.

It is worth noting that Melbourne Girls Grammar staffed their Wellbeing Centre with professionals from the health sciences. The situation is rather different in many public schools. Here you might find a teacher-cum-yogi having a go at mindfulness exercises or a teacher-cum-counsellor asking students to make positivity post-its. While teachers might get a warm buzz from such efforts, they are demonstrating epistemic arrogance writ large. Most educators are unqualified to deal with mental health issues and their cack-handed efforts could result in serious harm. Furthermore, many of their efforts smack of safetyism, an approach to education which flouts the core principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. A school system which engages in constant mollycoddling of adolescents, while also encouraging emotional reasoning and “good versus bad” thinking, has almost certainly contributed to the resilience crisis itself. Therefore, there is no reason to think that schools are well-positioned to make a difference to wellbeing.

At a time when Australia’s schools are being outperformed in maths by some of Europe’s poorest countries, why should Australian educators be spearheading campaigns against mental illness? A better idea would be to conduct an open investigation into whether the current system is inadvertently contributing to the fragility and moral dependency of many Generation Z adolescents.

Raymond Burns is an English teacher with many years’ experience teaching in Australian schools. He wrote on the state of the secondary English curriculum in the September issue

Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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