What on earth does a Guard Dog, a Wise Owl, an Elephant and a Sifting Sooty have to do with teaching children about their mental health?
Well first up, before we answer this mysterious, seemingly ridiculous question, let us begin with a few sober statistics. Better to get them out of the way so that we can launch ourselves into the good news. In Australia, suicide is now the leading cause of death for 5 to 17-year olds. This is not a misprint; Australia’s independent national mental health commission published these results last year. That means, you are more likely to die from suicide than by a road accident or cancer if you fall into this age bracket. Secondly, according to Beyond Blue, half of all serious mental health issues begin before a child reaches 14 years of age.
Breathe that in for a moment, let it settle. We promised good news though.
Many of you familiar with the world of positive psychology (the scientific study of human flourishing) may have heard about the work by Dr Barbara Fredrickson, showing that small moments of joy can inoculate against the hard times. Or with studies by Dr Robert A. Emmons that have spotlighted how adopting a gratitude practice can build levels of optimism and feelings of connection. And then there is mindfulness, yes it is a buzz word and while practising it may not cure you of every illness, land you your dream job or prevent you from ever having a melt down, it DOES have researched benefits. Including building skills in emotional regulation, compassion and increasing a positive outlook on life.
So, at Grow Your Mind we would argue that in amongst the gloomy, albeit terrifying mental health statistics, there is reason for hope. And hope, it turns out, according to one of the founders of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, is quite a powerful antidote to poor mental health too.
Now back to the slightly strange question at the start of our first blog post. Something around Guard Dogs and teaching mental health? Perhaps to answer this we need to pretend we are four years old again. We are at pre-school. In walks a teacher. She is carrying a bag and a box that look interesting. We sit in a circle. She begins.
I have a bag. There are some things in here that I want you to tell me about. Mainly, why I have them? What they do for me? Ready?
She pulls out an apple. Our hands shoot up. Our eyes and eye brows are as wide and as high as we can physically make them. It is after all a truth universally acknowledged that the higher your eye brows are the greater your chance of being selected to answer a teacher’s question. “It is an apple you have it in case you get hungry” Yes, she smiles, but why don’t I have chocolate instead? Or chips? Hands shoot up again. This continues with items such as a water bottle, sunscreen and a toothbrush.
Ok, so I have a few things to protect my body in my bag. What about my mind? What do you think I have that might make my brain stronger and keep it feeling good? Not so many hands this time… One answer. “A bike helmet”
And so, the Grow Your Mind journey begins. The next statement we would hear, if we were 4, would be that the first step to protecting and strengthening your mind is to understand how it works. This is where those animals come into play. You see each one represents a different part of the brain. All is going well when your Guard Dog (the amygdala) is nice and small, however there are many times when the Guard Dog gets BIG and BOSSY and the other animals can’t talk to each other. This means it is nearly impossible to focus (Sifting Sooty – reticular activating system) to make a good decision (Wise Owl – prefrontal cortex) and to remember things (Elephant who tries to remember - hippocampus).
Now perhaps you are thinking, sounds great for my 4-year-old but aren’t all of these animals a bit young for my 10-year-old? We disagree. As would the adult psychiatric unit in Brisbane that just ordered our resources, plus the year 6 students we teach weekly who laugh at their own Guard Dogs (and that of their parents). At the end of one year 4 class we asked students to make a wish for the planet. “No more wars.” “I wish people would get rid of plastic”, all delightful responses for sure, but our favourite by far “That Donald Trump could do the Grow Your Mind lessons and if he was too busy for the lessons that he could at least have a home kit. Imagine how much more peaceful the world would be?”
Teachers have listened to our lessons and have requested we run workshops just for them. This is perhaps the delicious ingredient in positive psychology that we are trying to capture with our kits. When you learn about the science behind resilience and flourishing, it has a contagious effect. There is a message for everyone here: STOP focusing on being happy and instead reap the benefits of showing kindness to others. Practice gratitude. Try getting a D.O.S.E of wellbeing every day (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins). Experiment with being in nature regularly. The list goes on. They are ageless suggestions. Still unsure what on earth we are talking about? Think positive psychology in a box. Think visible wellbeing at home and at school, but not painful in your face health promotion, instead, inspiring, artistic and calming take it or leave it ideas for nurturing your mind. Think about a wellbeing bridge between schools and homes, where teachers prioritise their own mental health too.
And finally, think taking care of your mental health in much the same way you look after your teeth.
To see our very basic clips that further explain the animal helpers and our Grow Your Mind resources, click here.