©2018 The NRC All Rights Reserved

Pilot project in Abu Dhabi school puts mental health at the heart of pupils' education

A group of Abu Dhabi schools are running a new pilot programme which sees pupils taught how to manage mental health pressures they may experience. Emirates National Schools has linked with the World Health Organisation to put mental health workshops into the curriculum.

The intention is to get young people to talk more about the pressures placed on them, to recognise it in others and to prepare them for the future. Pupils will be taught how to manage their emotions and will also undergo mindfulness sessions, a psychological process used to help clear the mind and reduce stress and anxiety. Research shows about one in five children and adolescents have a mental health problem or disorder, while half of all mental problems begin before the age of 14 The project is being run in cooperation with the WHO and the UAE's National Rehabilitation Centre.

If successful, the intention is to roll it out across the country and even the region. Dr Hesham Hamoda, a consultant of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, told The National that there is a need to better prepare young people for the future. “The opportunity we have here is to affect the lives of many people," he said. "School mental health is a very important topic. We know that one fifth of children suffer from a mental health problem. We also know that half of mental health problems starts in adolescence and childhood so we have an opportunity not only to tackle an issue that is a public health crisis, but also an issue that is important to the development of nations.”

The programme itself and how it could be integrated into curriculums or taught separately will be discussed with the education authorities in Abu Dhabi this week.

It is expected the programme will be delivered primarily in Arabic with a separate course for English-language classes. Emirates National Schools is a private operator of three second schools that are attended mostly my Emirati boys and girls.

“When we talk about mental health it isn’t just because it is an important topic but because it touches on so many different areas," Dr Hamoda said.

"The UAE is making important efforts in terms of improving its educational capacity and I think attention to mental health would allow schools to take the next step.

"This programme fits into the core responsibilities of a school because we know that students who better emotional and mental health, actually do better and reduces juvenile crime rates, school drop outs so this is very important in terms of public policy."

In 2013, the NRC introduced a programme that teaches schoolchildren about the hazards of smoking and taking drugs. The initiative, called Unplugged, was also implemented at Emirates National Schools.

It is hoped that the new project will build on that and run next year.

“We used the experiences and challenges we had with Unplugged and developed this new programme,” said Ayesha Al Hosani, a healthcare educator at the NRC.

“The programme is both life skills and mental health,” she said.

“This year we are assessing the situation and getting all of those holders involved.

“It is also not only about school children but parents involved as well,” Ms Al Hosani said.

Dr Hamad Al Ghaferi, director of the rehabilitation centre, said the school and authorities are ready to embrace what is a "unique" project in schools.

"If we succeed in our objectives, this will be the first programme in the Middle East and the region. We want to introduce the concept of 'healthy schools' - there are healthy cities but not healthy schools," he said.