This is an edited version of my article that will be published in the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation’s August 2010 edition of “Active and Healthy Magazine”.
Since Labour’s 2007 election win, Julia Gillard have been lauding her “Educational Revolution.” Her by-line for the revolution is that much of the new National Curriculum will adopt a “Back to Basics” stance. Imagine if during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, the leaders of the time had said, “Forget this steam engine stuff, let’s get back to basics. Bring out the horse!”
The current NSW PDHPE 7-10 Syllabus states the following, “The aim of the PDHPE Years 7–10 Syllabus is to develop students’ capacity to enhance personal health and wellbeing, enjoy an active lifestyle, maximize movement potential and advocate lifelong health and physical activity.”
Undoubtedly this is a justified aim given that three of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity in Australia are Cardiovascular Disease (CVD), Obesity, and Type II Diabetes. Regular physical activity has long been recognised as a health enhancing behaviour, particularly in regard to the three conditions mentioned here.
Consider how as a school and a PDHPE department we address CVD. The school will have no smoking and healthy canteen policies; the school will promote extra curricular sporting teams; the PDHPE department will teach the theory surrounding the nature of CVD, the risk factors associated with CVD and the benefits of a healthy diet and regular physical activity in the prevention of CVD. Then crucially we take our class out to the oval to be physically active. We give the students an opportunity to put what they have learnt into practice, and in doing so, along with the supportive environment created by our schools we are actively helping to prevent CVD.
However, there is another condition prevalent in Australia that if the World Health Organisation is to be believed, will be the number one cause of morbidity by 2030. The WHO states that by the time the students in our Year 7 Class are 33 years old, Depression will the number one cause of disability in the developed world.
Moreover, there is a wealth of research to suggest that while the prevalence of youth suicide and drug related deaths has dropped over the last 20 years, the rate of mental illness has increased in successive generations of Australian youth. About a quarter of young people suffer significant psychological distress at any one time and as many as half suffer from less severe but frequent symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches and insomnia.
Over the same period of time, research also suggests we have seen rising levels of obesity, violent crime, family conflict/breakdown, and educational and work pressures. It has also been argued by academics that society has become more individualistic and materialistic.
So let’s consider how we address Depression in schools. A typical strategy could be to talk about it in class with regard to the nature of the condition (but please don’t mention suicide). We might give the students a few role-plays to practise or point them in the direction of someone to talk to if they, or a friend, feel they’re suffering from depression. Throw in a couple of one-off presentations from the school counsellor and that just about covers it for the year.
This is obviously a little flippant, but the point is we do not continually reinforce or give the students an opportunity to practise preventative actions for Depression as we do for CVD.
And my question is; “Why not?”
The World Health Organisation is telling us that our current crop of Year 7s will be facing a bigger threat from depression than from any other disease by the time they are in their mid-thirties; some may consider us negligent if we don’t do something now to try and prevent this.
So how will the writers of the new National PDHPE Curriculum address this?
Surely a “Back to Basics” approach would be severely flawed and a great disservice to the current and future generations of Australian youth.
Clearly physical activity has to remain front and centre of any new National Curriculum.
However, the question is; how can we put mental health on an equal footing in the curriculum? How can we seek to actively prevent depression in the same way we seek to actively prevent CVD?
I’m a keen advocate for the inclusion of Positive Psychology practises to be included in the school curriculum. (My links page offers a range of websites to broaden your knowledge of Positive Psychology).