Christchurch schools promote wellbeing through character strength
An "escalated mental illness crisis" in New Zealand's youth has prompted calls for character awareness to become part of the national school curriculum.
International Positive Education Network representative Dr Lucy Hone has been working with five Christchurch schools to create and apply a "wellbeing and character education strategy".
It comes as the number of young people contacting mental health services in Canterbury rose 60 per cent since the earthquakes.
Sumner, Redcliffs, Mt Pleasant, Heathcote Valley and Our Lady, Star of the Sea schools have been involved in the pilot programme, which is being run as an empirical study.
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Hone said a large body of research suggested awareness and use of character strengths was protective against depression and anxiety, and associated with several positive outcomes.
Post-earthquakes, the wellbeing of school children has been a major issue in Christchurch. The 2016 Canterbury Wellbeing Survey found just over one in 10 residents (13 per cent) are still dealing with frightened, upset or unsettled children as a result of the disaster. For one in 20, stress is still having a moderate or major impact on their lives.
Ministry of Health data shows Canterbury's child and youth mental health services had 34,936 contacts with young people last year – up from 20,744 in 2011, an increase of 60 per cent. Nationally, there was 5 per cent increase over the same period.
New Zealand Association of Counsellors school counsellor spokeswoman Sarah Maindonald said since the earthquakes, there had been a surge in demand for counselling in Christchurch schools which "hasn't really abated".
Hone said there was an "escalated mental illness crisis" in the country's young people, and promoting universal wellbeing needed to be taught in schools.
She "absolutely" wanted character strength to become part of the national school curriculum. "[That's the] "best way to go about it", she said.
Character "isn't a singular trait like eye colour" but a "constellation" of lots of different strengths everyone had, and needed to draw on when faced with challenges, she said.
Our Lady, Star of the Sea School communications leader Luke Stedman said character was something they referred to "most days" in school.
The 12-year-old said what they learned helped "if you're struggling or aren't doing so well" in school or exams.
Sumner School principal Stuart Cameron said having children be able to identify what their character strengths were and apply them to their lives made "a huge difference".
"We feel that character education and wellbeing is becoming more and more important in the lives of our kids, and in their learning as well."
He said it would be a long process, and was about raising awareness and making children more conscious of the importance of character.
Students from four of the Christchurch schools involved in the pilot launched Global Character Day by using their bodies to form the words 'character matters', at Sumner Beach on Thursday.
Global Character Day is an initiative involving 40,000 schools across the world. The Christchurch schools were the first to celebrate, due to being first across the dateline.
Leading up to Global Character Day, the students spent time in class working out how big the letters needed to be based on how many children were attending. Builders marked them out and dug out the outline over five hours Thursday morning.