PAHO/WHO Launches Handbook Promoting Mental Health and Wellbeing in Primary Schools

Handbook Promoting Mental Health in Schools cover

Bridgetown, Barbados, 7 February 2023 (PAHO/WHO) - In response to the fact that almost half of mental health issues in the Americas begin during childhood, PAHO/WHO has launched an innovative tool for primary school educators.  The handbook is titled, “Promoting Wellbeing and Mental Health in Schools”. 

The Handbook is a self-learning and evidence-informed guide that will be used to train primary school educators in mental health literacy via the PAHO Virtual Campus for Public Health. The project is a collaborative effort comprising experts from PAHO/WHO Subregional Programme Coordination Office for the Caribbean, the Mental Health and Substance Use Unit and its Collaborating Center for Research and Training in Mental Health at McGill University, and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute. 

“Prevention of emotional and behavioural disorders continues to be a key global public health priority,” stated Mr. Dean Chambliss, Subregional Program Director of the PAHO/WHO Caribbean Office of Subregional Programme Coordination. “It is well documented that evidence-informed psychological, behavioral, and social approaches significantly contribute to positive mental health, reduction of risky behaviors, mental disorders, self-harm, and suicide,” Mr. Chambliss said.  

Research conducted under PAHO/WHO’s Investment Case for Noncommunicable Diseases & Mental Disorders demonstrated convincing evidence for investment in preventive and control measures across the human life course, thus reducing the health and economic burden of non-communicable diseases and mental disorders and improving access to care. The study, recently concluded in Suriname and presently being undertaken in Guyana, also highlighted that it makes economic sense to prioritize investment in mental health, as the benefits contribute to increased productivity and  economic growth.     

“Promoting wellbeing and mental health in schools is so important because childhood and adolescence are critical periods for physical, emotional and social development,” Unit Chief, Mental Health and Substance Use PAHO/WHO, Dr. Renato Olivera e Souza emphasized. “Mental health literacy aims to decrease stigma around mental health conditions and increase the understanding of teachers and students on how to optimise and maintain good mental health, and also support those seeking help” Dr. Olivera e Souza said. 

Advocacy Officer, Childhood Obesity and Prevention, and Coordinator of Healthy Caribbean Youth, Healthy Caribbean Coalition, Ms. Danielle Walwyn, established the significance of involving all persons within school environments throughout the development of responsive mental health and wellbeing initiatives. This approach was utilised in the Healthy Caribbean Coalition Youth’s recent “Caribbean Youth Mental Health Call to Action” initiative, under which young people documented key asks for policy makers to transform the region’s mental health.  

“Most importantly you engage children and allies such as teachers in the advocacy process who are at the centre of the primary school setting,” Ms. Walwyn encouraged. “For us it was important to engage vulnerable groups who face unique mental health challenges” she shared.  

Director of the Montreal-based Collaborating Centre for Mental Health at McGill University and The Douglas Mental Health University Institute, Dr. Marc Laporta, presented the illustrated Handbook. He expressed his hope that the publication will enable primary school educators to support vulnerable children and promote mental health and wellbeing in schools.  

“In adults, we often miss mental health disorders and people lose their jobs and are often stigmatised, sometimes criminalised” Dr. Laporta said. “In the same way, in children, we’ve realised that mental health problems start quite early and are not recognised, because we think that children are immune to this kind of thing - but clearly, they are not,” Dr. Laporta asserted.  

The evidence-informed Handbook is publicly available to primary school educators as well as all interested persons. PAHO/WHO Advisor, Mental Health, Dr. Claudina Cayetano affirmed the importance of increasing awareness about the Handbook and encouraged persons to share their feedback with the collaborating team. There are also plans to translate the publication into other languages to encourage widespread readership.