Wednesday 18 October 2017

Reducing anxiety for teenage students

The FRIENDS for Life programme seeks to build emotional resilience

Stratford College students Melanija Cvetic, Emma Smyth and Jakob Miller with PE, SPHE teacher and TY Coordinator Linda Finegan taking part in the Friends for Life Wellbeing Programme for Secnd Year students
Photo: Steve Humphreys
Stratford College students Melanija Cvetic, Emma Smyth and Jakob Miller with PE, SPHE teacher and TY Coordinator Linda Finegan taking part in the Friends for Life Wellbeing Programme for Secnd Year students Photo: Steve Humphreys

Meadhbh McGrath

Much of the discussion around mental health and adolescents centres around crisis management, but a programme being used in some Irish post-primary schools is reaping results in helping pupils to deal with issues before they become a problem.

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common forms of psychological distress in childhood and adolescence. A study conducted by Barnardos in 2008 estimated that 18.7pc of children suffer from some form of mental health issue or psychological disorder, the principal one being anxiety.

Anxiety can interfere with students' ability to deal with many activities in their daily lives, both at school and at home.

The FRIENDS for Life programme seeks to promote emotional resilience and teach students the skills to cope with and manage anxiety, both now and later in life.

Patricia Gordon, principal of Stratford College , Rathgar, Dublin, says the increase in anxiety issues among her students was what prompted her to introduce the programme.

"We noticed a decrease in students' coping skills and their resilience, so we wanted to find something that was more positive and that would give them the skills to manage and cope with that anxiety.

"I think it's very important to have a programme like this in secondary schools. There has been an increase in levels of anxiety over the last five or six years, and it's a way of trying to address that," she says.

She had heard about the programme from a report by the National Behaviour Support Service (NBSS), which assists schools in addressing social and behavioural concerns in their students.

The NBSS conducted a study of 14 post-primary schools and found that there was a significant reduction in students' anxiety levels after completing the FRIENDS for Life programme.

FRIENDS for Life is also the only anxiety prevention programme recognised by the World Health Organisation.

The programme was developed in Australia to prevent anxiety, depression and suicide in children and adolescents, and was first implemented in underprivileged schools to help build resilient communities in areas of need.

The lessons focus on maintaining good mental health in everyday life, and encourage the sharing and nurturing of positive emotions.

Ms Gordon says it's important that school-based mental health programmes deal with issues outside of the school as well.

"Most of the problems that are coming into the school are social problems, like the impact of social media, peer influences, possibly the decline in spiritual authority, and the widespread availability of illegal or underage substances.

"Schools are being asked to manage and deal with those issues more and more."

The FRIENDS for Life programme involves 10 lessons spread across as many weeks. In Stratford College, these lessons are taught through the SPHE curriculum. During lessons, students are guided through a variety of class-based activities, including team work, games, written exercises, and group conversations.

The school piloted the programme with last year's second year students, and received very positive feedback. Some 80pc of the students said they enjoyed the programme, and 86pc said they learned how to cope with feeling worried or upset.

Feedback indicated that the most useful activity from the programme was a lesson on "self-talk" and changing negative to positive thoughts. Students learn how to identify a negative (or 'red') thought and to try to turn it into a positive (or 'green') thought.

This process is called "catching" thoughts, and Jakob Millar (14), one of the second year students currently taking part in the programme, cites it as his favourite element of the lessons so far.

"If you're nervous, it helps you think about your feelings and talk to yourself about it so you can become the boss of your anger.

"It's been helping me. Exams worry me, and even though it's not near exam time yet, it's helping me prepare for that."

Linda Finnegan, PE and SPHE teacher at Stratford College, is leading the programme with this year's second years.

"There had been some anxiety in the class, and some students had said to me that they were nervous about different things.

"It could be friendships, it could be exams, or it could be students comparing themselves to each other and feeling not as good as one another. That could also be due to social media, but I'm noticing that more and more."

This year's second years are only a few weeks into the programme, but Ms Finnegan says she can already see the lessons making an impact in the classroom.

"I've definitely seen an improvement in the students, especially when talking about their feelings.

"They're learning about how their thoughts become feelings, and how their feelings become actions. We're saying that whatever feeling you have, it's not wrong; we just try to think, how can we learn to relax a bit more?

"It's interesting because if they see some other students who are quite anxious, then they don't feel alone or like they aren't the only one."

Sharing the burden

Oonagh Delargy (14), a second year student in Stratford College  explains that FRIENDS is an acronym that reminds students of the lessons they've learned in class.

It stands for Feelings, Relax, Inner thoughts, Explore solutions, Now reward, Do it everyday and Stay strong inside.

Orlagh says: "You can use the stuff that you've learned every day. We have a French test today, and I'm feeling kind of nervous now, but I say to myself, 'this is how I feel, can I relax a bit more?'

She says they share stuff in class, and talk about an opportunity they are thankful for, and then something that they found challenging.

"But you don't have to share if you don't want to. I don't mind sharing. I think it's kind of nice talking about it in class, because you find that a lot of people in class actually feel the same way as you do about some things."

Irish Independent

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