In most states, health education is a school requirement for middle and high-school students. Now, some states are requiring schools to teach about mental health as well. The state of Virginia is now requiring mental health be taught in ninth and tenth grades, and the state of New York is including mental health as part of the curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade.
But nationwide, too, many cities and school districts are featuring mental health education in order to address the increasing need among the entire population for mental healthcare. The movement to promote mental health education in schools is a direct result of a substantial increase in youth depression and anxiety. By reducing the stigma of mental illness through education, schools hope to encourage students to seek help if they are struggling with a mental health-related issue.
The History of Mental Health and Its Stigma
Mental illness and mental health treatment, for that matter, has a checkered past. Scary words like “asylum,” “lobotomy,” and “madness,” as well as derogatory labels like “lunatic,” reinforced the negative stigma associated with mental health. During the nineteenth century, people suffering from severe mental illness could be treated like criminals. Because doctors didn’t understand the illnesses they were attempting to treat, treatments were often barbaric and ineffectual from a modern, medical point of view. Many families would attempt to hide the presence of mental illness by shuttering family members in asylums. Moreover, these negative attitudes about mental illness and people who suffer from it continued well into the twentieth century.
Stigma, of course, resulted in discrimination. Once it was known that an individual was diagnosed with schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, or manic depression, they often faced challenges related to work, school, and even their social environment.
After the 1950s, the mental health field in many countries, including the United States, saw new advancements in understanding and treating many conditions. Researchers began to unravel many of the mysteries associated with mental health conditions and find many effective treatments to manage what are often–though not always–chronic conditions.
Even so, some stigma has persisted to this day, which is why many schools are stepping forward to encourage the youngest members of our society to view mental health as part of our overall health–and to seek medical care if they experience symptoms.
The Importance of Addressing Mental Health and Stigma with Students
Just like adults, children can experience mental health stigma too. Tweens and teens who exhibit or feel symptoms of a mental health disturbance may feel reluctant to seek help or treatment if they believe there is a stigma associated with mental health. Moreover, they may have heard that teens experience lots of hormone changes–that the depressive feelings they’re experiencing might even be normal. Without education, these students don’t know when their negative feelings have crossed the line and become a clinical mental health condition.
The goal for instructors is thus to educate students about the most commonly experienced mental illnesses and their symptoms. Teachers are also tasked with helping reduce mental health stigmas through education. For instance, they can remind students that roughly half the people in the country will experience a diagnosable mental health condition at some point during their lifetime. Half the population will have a mental health illness. The other half of people–they’re likely to be related to someone with a mental health condition. It might be their friend or their colleague, so it behooves everyone to understand what mental health illness looks like and to contribute to the reduction of the stigma surrounding mental illness.
The idea behind this educational approach is that students, when educated at a younger age, can develop greater empathy for people who struggle with mental illness and gain deeper understanding about these issues. Whether they learn about mental health in P.E. or in school health classes, they will obtain a level of education that is likely to serve them and the community in the years to come.
What Kind of Curriculum Is Included in a Mental Health Class?
Schools in Virginia and New York, as well as districts around the country, are developing mental health curricula to integrate into P.E. or health education classes. As more districts understand the benefits of teaching mental health in schools, there may be more states that mandate this type of education. The states and participating districts hope to curb the alarming increases in teen suicide and behaviors like cutting and drug use, which are related to mental health symptoms like depression or anxiety.
Part of the curriculum for tween/teen mental health education is to discuss major forms of mental illness and the most common forms of mental illness like depression and anxiety. Instructors teach students how to recognize symptoms of a mental health condition. Some schools include a strong focus on the link between mental illness and drinking or drug use. This focus is important, given the opioid epidemic and high rates of drinking/drug use among teens and young adults in many cities and states across the country. Students also learn about how to maintain their mental health and what they should do if they experience mental illness symptoms or have suicidal thoughts and feelings.
Most chronic forms of mental health illness occur during the tween/teen years, but mental illness can occur in children who are younger as well. A child who experiences a traumatic event, for instance, may suffer a mental health disruption and require treatment. Children may experience depressive or anxious feelings that move beyond what a clinician would dub a “normal range.” They might exhibit negative behaviors in association with how they’re feeling or thinking.
So, some schools believe it’s important to begin mental health education in children as young as kindergarten, as they’re doing in New York. The curriculum necessarily looks different from the curriculum for a seventh or tenth grader, but it begins a process of learning about mental health and mental illness. Instructors may discuss negative feelings and provide children with ideas for managing those feelings–and encourage them to tell their parents or teachers when they’re feeling things like fear, sadness, or worry. As these young students progress through their school years, they’ll build on that early mental health education so that by the time they graduate, they have an informed understanding about mental health.
What Are the Goals for Mental Health Education in Schools?
Educators are hoping to see a reduction in suicide in the teen and young adult population where it has been increasing. However, they believe this type of education may also reduce alcohol and drug abuse or other negative behaviors that can detract from quality of life. Plus, educators hope that by raising mental health awareness in school, they can chip away at any remnants of mental health stigma, so that no one is afraid to seek medical care to address their mental health issues.
In addition, they hope to provide students with a wide range of strategies for fostering/protecting their mental health. Instructors acknowledge that kids are increasingly indoors. They socialize less in person and spend time online–a behavior that could potentially lead to a mental health issue. Kids also face increasing pressure to perform well on standardized tests. Educators help to teach kids how to cope with stress in healthy ways so that it doesn’t turn into chronic stress, which could lead to both mental and physical health problems. With more focus on mental health in schools, they believe they can reduce mental illness stigma and encourage kids to seek help when they experience any type of mental health symptom.