It’s way past time we have serious discussions on mental health in our schools. Although important strides have been made, they are not enough. Our education system is not truly educating our children on mental health conditions. Bills have been passed, and programs have been added. These include teacher trainings on mental health, supplemental social and emotional learning for students, extra mental health specialists to support students, and in a few high schools, peer centered support groups. It’s not enough.
You might think this sounds great and wonder why it isn’t enough. The reason is that although these are great first steps, none of them truly educate our students on mental health conditions. We educate our students in physical health through required PE and health classes. Physical education is deemed important enough to have state standards and required classes beginning in kindergarten and going into high school. Yet, mental health isn’t treated in the same way. With the exception of only a couple of states, there are no mental health standards built into the curriculum for students K-12. This is shameful.
There is still much stigma associated with mental health conditions and suicide. In order to truly combat the stigma, mental health education needs to begin early in elementary school so we can target conditions and treat them more effectively before they advance to a dangerous level. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 50% of mental illness begins by 14 years of age and 75% by age 24. (Per Johns Hopkins Medicine, approximately 26% of people aged 18 and older live with a mental health condition in a given year.) This means that we need to begin early, with our children.
We realize how hard educators work. They don’t need any extra duties. We also realize social, emotional learning is being added to school programs. However, what it looks like from one district to the next, one state to the next, is vague and inconsistent. Project AWARE is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough on its own.
What we need is a curriculum adjustment – not only another teacher training or an add-on for students, but a standards-based curriculum adjustment. This is so our children can learn about mental health conditions, just like they learn about physical health conditions. Mental health standards need to be part of state educational standards. Mental health lessons need to be taught throughout the year, each year to our students.
There needs to be consistent, age appropriate, discussions on a continual basis built into the curriculum. This can be done through whatever subject is deemed appropriate, with minimal time allotted on a weekly basis.
In high school, there needs to be a required class to be taken each year. This class could be for a half credit to go toward graduation. In this way, students could earn their units for graduation and not affect the school’s graduation rate.
The reason for providing continuity in mental health education from kindergarten through high school is to normalize mental health, just like we do with physical health.
Discussion on self-harm and suicide, should be a part of the instruction from late elementary school on up. Of course, as in all of the curriculum, this would need to be age appropriate.
Normalizing mental health conditions and suicidal ideation would remove the stigma attached to them. Physical health conditions are normalized. Mental health conditions should be normalized as well.
Many children and adolescents are hiding the fact that they have anxiety and depression. No one has helped them to truly understand that they are not alone. In fact, a large number of children and teens live with these feelings. Because they don’t know that many others suffer from anxiety and depression, they don’t reach out for help. They are ashamed and afraid of what their classmates might have to say about them if they admit to having these feelings. So, they stay silent. They don’t feel normal.
We must remove the stigma. Stigma only leads to silence. Silence leads to despair. And despair leads to very unhappy and unproductive lives, as well as serious risk of self-harm and suicide.