Student takes aim at minister as he warns of 'the abhorrent state of the mental health of year 12s'

A year 12 student has sounded the alarm over what he describes as "the abhorrent state of the mental health of year 12s" at his school, writing to the Education Minister Sue Ellery to demand change.

Michael Orange, 17, said many students were suffering anxiety attacks, stress-induced panic attacks and mental health problems at a Perth public school.

He says the resources for students to access help were not good enough, with teachers unable to cope with demands for help from their students.

The curriculum was too demanding, and the school structured in a way that was not doing the mental health of students any good. He said students, many of whom would be old enough to vote in the next election, should have more of a say in how their schooling was managed.

Year 12 exams begin next month.

"Less testing, the curriculum is insane, the constant testing means that we aren’t absorbing information and are limiting our education to the next assessment," he said.

"Please know this comes from a place of love for my country and hatred for our ridiculous school system, reforms are needed if not a complete restructure of the curriculum and mental health support.

"Year 12’s mental health shouldn’t be an election issue or a flashy new program, it should be the main focus of your administration."

The letter was posted on Facebook and attracted more than 100 comments, many sharing his concerns about the stresses caused by the way the school year and curriculum was structured.

"From real first hand experience, I was only made aware of the schools psychologist after I came in for the fifth time complaining of mental health issues and explicitly asked for resources," he wrote.

"Students need freedom, as a cohort of 17/18 year olds, we would like to have a say in the way our education is handled, some of us will be voting in the next election if that puts anymore pressure on you."

Mr Orange said teachers needed better training to deal with the mental health issues of students, as he had consulted teachers many times and received "lack-luster" advice.

He called for more resources for students, real structural reform in student services, safe rooms and quiet spaces for students to escape the stress of school.

Mr Orange took issue with Minister Ellery's response to his first communication with her, where he was told about the McGowan Government's election commitment to have 300 schools use a Level 3 teacher part time to coordinate a school approach to student mental health, including purchasing resources for mental health programs.

"Please be aware that implementing a 'Level 3 teacher part time to coordinate a school approach to mental health' has been ineffective," he wrote.

Minister Ellery said she had spoken briefly with Mr Orange at a community meeting in August.

"Following that discussion I wrote to him and sent him information on what was being done in schools, and specifically his school ... to address issues with mental health," she said.

“Mental health is something I take seriously and I have introduced a number of measures to help students better cope with some of the pressures of school life.”

But State School Teachers Union president Pat Byrne said the points raised in the student's letter were all valid, and the union would like to see the government respond to these issues in a structured way that acknowledged some of the difficulties with existing practices.

"We acknowledge this has been particularly difficult year for students due to COVID, but more broadly that anxiety and stress in upper school have increased over time," she said.

“We’d welcome a structured approach to dealing with these issues in secondary schools, including a possible realignment of how resources to address mental health are allocated.”

Western Australian Association for Mental Health chief executive Taryn Harvey said while there may be resources for schools to guide them in how to help students, schools must consider how they involved students in making decisions about how they were used.

"It doesn't sound like these kids feel like they have been engaged in how the school is responding," she said.

She said there was a movement around getting out of the 'sausage factory' approach of providing education, and schools should take note.

"There are ongoing challenges regarding how safe young people are feeling in this world, COVID has exacerbated the existential crisis they feel about their future," Ms Harvey said.

"Have our schools changed enough to respond to the kind of world that we're living in? This teenager is saying that they're not."

"Our message is very much it's not enough to give people the tools to ask each other if they're ok, if people are becoming aware of their needs and we're not able to respond to them, then we're not really helping people at all."

Ms Harvey said schools did not always feel for young people that they're a student centred place.

Individual school communities needed to be aware of their unique needs. Young people had growing expectations of being involved in decision making.

This article can be read in full from WAToday by clicking here.

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