CityU research shows positive education improves student mental health

Michelle Leung

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​A survey by City University of Hong Kong (CityU) has been published addressing widespread concerns about the prevalence of anxiety and depression among local primary and secondary school students. The survey looks at the correlation between anxiety/depression and psychological development and interpersonal relationships, as well as the mitigating effect of positive education.

Conducted by CityU’s Department of Applied Social Sciences and Choi Wan Rhenish Integrated Children and Youth Services Centre under the Chinese Rhenish Church (Hong Kong Synod), the survey was undertaken between March and August 2014. More than 300 children aged 9–13 and more than 200 teenagers aged 12–16 were interviewed for the survey, which was carried out under the Personal Growth and Development Project.
The survey revealed that secondary school students generally had a higher level of anxiety and depression than primary school students. Among the 248 secondary school students and 334 primary school students interviewed, 30% and 20.7% respectively were possible cases of anxiety, while 17.1% of secondary school students and 16.4% of primary school students were found to be probable cases of anxiety.
In addition, 25.7% of secondary school students and 19.7% of primary school students were possible cases of depression, while 17.9% of secondary school students and 12.6% of primary school students were probable cases of depression.
The survey also measured the sense of happiness and flourishing among secondary and primary school students. Out of a full score of 7, a total of 39.6% of secondary school students and 47.9% of primary school students respectively gave a rating of over 5 on their sense of happiness. Moreover, 41.8% of secondary school students and 52.8% of primary school students gave a score of over 5 on their sense of living a flourishing life.

A total of 29 primary and secondary school students were invited to join the Happy Ambassador Group, during which their perceived sense of wellbeing, emotional state, happiness and sense of flourishing were again evaluated. Eight sessions were held with themed activities such as games, positive activities, experiential exercises, story sharing, video watching, and small group sharing. Through these activities, the participants were able to learn more about themselves, their emotions and sources of anxiety as well as ways of transforming their emotions. The aim was to help them accept and appreciate themselves and achieve a sense of happiness and satisfaction.
After joining the activities, the mental health of the participants was found to have improved significantly. Their ratings improved in areas such as sense of happiness (from 4.17 to 4.53), sense of flourishing (from 4.35 to 4.83), environmental mastery (from 3.49 to 3.95) and social support from friends (10.34 to 12.10).
Dr Sylvia Kwok Lai Yuk-ching, the Principal Investigator of the Project and Associate Professor of CityU’s Department of Applied Social Sciences, said that the field of positive psychology, which is supported by an empirical base, studies the relationships among character strengths, positive emotions and happiness.
“By organising various positive education activities through the Personal Growth and Development Project, we want to foster students’ positive attitude towards life,” Dr Kwok said. “Our objectives are to mitigate their anxiety and depression, and decrease their suicidal ideation. We want to help them take on stress and challenges positively and move forward to a flourishing life.”
The project team published a handbook on the Happy Ambassador Group for reference by social workers and counsellors to help them master intervention skills and to assist children and teenagers manage their emotions, solve problems and set goals.
To mitigate anxiety and depression among primary and secondary students and foster their sense of wellbeing, the project team believes parents, schools, social welfare organisations and the government can all play a part:
  • Parents should share happiness and challenges in life with their children, understand their needs and pay attention to their mental health. They should also encourage their children to communicate their feelings, while expressing their love and care for them and helping them accept themselves as part of the process of personal growth.
  • Schools can apply the concepts of positive psychology, such as the sense of wellbeing, resilience and character strengths in talks and other extra-curricular activities aimed at helping students understand these concepts. Schools should also encourage students to use their strengths to meet challenges and solve problems in their lives.
  • Social welfare organisations, particularly those serving children and teenagers, can refer to the handbook published by the project and make use of resources in the community to organise activities for families, children, teenagers and women. The aim is to have them practise the concept of positive psychology and create a caring culture.  
  • The government should act as an advocator to provide resources to social welfare organisations and conduct positive education activities in communities in order to increase happiness and wellness as well as mitigate anxiety and depression.  
Under the Personal Growth and Development Project, a variety of group activities is planned to help teenagers and children build a positive attitude for dealing with stress and challenges, and set personal goals so as to enhance their sense of wellbeing and personal growth. The project was made possible by a sponsorship from the Social Welfare Development Fund.
For more information about positive education, please visit the website of the Positive Education Training and Research Unit under CityU’s Department of Applied Social Sciences:


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