Acknowledging and addressing mental health issues in school is vital, as 1 in 5 children or youth have been diagnosed as having an emotional, behavioural or mental health disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Writer Darren Bridges explores exactly why mental health resources should be available in all schools across the United States.
I remember trying to figure out the circumference of a circle without a complete understanding of why I’d need to know that. I remember reading “the classics” and learning a big piece of nothing from them. And I remember being repeatedly asked what my life goals were while still trying to figure out who the hell I was. For a place that’s supposed to empower and support young people, my high school felt like a cage stuffed with stressors—from the pressure to make good grades to navigating friendships. On top of all that, working part-time, doing household chores, and hiding my queerness were thrown into the mix. It was a lot. Looking back now, learning stress management, boundary setting, and the ins and outs of mental health would have really helped me deal with it all.
Back then, television was the only place I remember wellness and social-emotional health being mentioned. The topic was often downplayed and dismissed—at least in Black sitcoms. In season 2 of Girlfriends, one of the main characters, Joan, blurts out something her therapist told her during their session. Then Maya, the most outspoken one, proceeds to say “Girl, Black people don’t go to therapy. They go to church.”
The line was intended as a joke, but sadly plenty of Black people believe going to church and going to therapy is equivalent. A failure in awareness and education led to the myth that both faith and therapy tackle the same concerns when in actuality they deliver two different services. Church provides some with purpose and others with guidance when faced with difficult decisions. Therapy provides systems and tools to help deal with stressors, traumas, crises, and disorders. Since both can impact a person’s overall quality of life, it’s easy to confuse the two—especially for impressionable young people.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five youth have a mental health condition and most of those conditions appear in young children— with 50% of all conditions developing by age 14. Untreated and undiagnosed mental illnesses can disrupt students’ growth. And since kids spend a big chunk of their time in school, making mental health education a part of their every day makes so much sense.
The Student Behavior Blog lists five strategies, known as the 5 T’s, that help facilitate mental health education in schools: training to staff, incorporating mental health into lessons, providing tools for students, taking care of teachers, and starting conversations around mental health at a young age. Opening up conversations around mental health early isn’t a radical idea. Some teachers agree.
“I think that babies should be taught mental health education and gradually continue for the rest of their life,” says middle school teacher Ashley Simpson. “Mental health is a lifelong journey and should be taught at every developmental point in an individual’s life.
With 20 years of working with students under her belt, Simpson has seen how untreated mental illness and lack of knowledge affect a young person’s life. “I see the value in mental health in schools because students come to school with all their past and present traumas and need to be taught how to cope,” she says. “Students should know that their feelings and thoughts are valuable.”
Sarah Broadie, a fifth-grade teacher in North Carolina, feels similarly. She shares how an early mental health education could have helped her navigate some not-so-great habits. “Mental health was a taboo topic when I was growing up. It was not something that was discussed, let alone taught,” Broadie says. “I learned about mental health in college, and at that point, I definitely had some unhealthy coping mechanisms that I had to learn to let go of.”
I think Broadie is speaking for all of us. We could’ve all used some help working through our twisted ways of dealing with life. We now know better and can do better. In fact, in 2018, New York and Virginia became the first states to require mental health education in public schools. Shortly after, Florida and New Jersey followed. Fantastic strides in the right direction, but there’s still work to be done. According to an analysis by TODAY, more than a dozen states still don’t require or incorporate mental health education into their curriculum.
Teachers need to be equipped with tools to recognize when their students have a personal issue, and students need to be provided with the appropriate resources so they understand that they have a safe space to reach out for help. Make it a thing and the next generation will be built differently. Built better.
Written by Darren Bridges