I have spent my professional career as an educator, the majority of the time as a school counselor. During this time, I served students at each level of education from Kindergarten through high school, and in various types of school settings – public, charter public, and private. Before becoming a school counselor, I spent seven years as a public school music teacher. In both fields, it was truly an honor to work with such dedicated, talented, and hard-working people.
Over the years, programs evolved, and by the time I retired, I thought of all the progress we had made. One area was the addition of mental health professionals. During my time in education, elementary school guidance counselors were added to the schools’ programs as it became apparent that students needed extra support in the area of self-concept and feelings of confidence and competence as learners. The counselors’ roles evolved and expanded over the years. Eventually, mental health specialists were added as well to work with students.
With so much progress in the area of mental health, one might think this was enough. Unfortunately, I believe it is still not enough. My reason for saying this is that although these are great 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 continuing 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 unacceptable.
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 serious levels. 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.) With this knowledge, we must begin making changes early, with our children.
I realize how hard educators work. I would be the first to say that educators do not need any extra duties. I also realize that SEL (social, emotional learning) has been added to school programs. However, what it looks like from one school to the next, and one district 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 an additional teacher training or an extra program 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 with age appropriate mental health lessons being taught throughout the year, each year to our students.
In elementary and middle schools, these lessons may be incorporated into which ever subject is deemed appropriate, such as PE or science classes. In high school, a credit-bearing mental health class should be required to be taken for graduation. 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 – again, in my opinion. 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 a number of 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 surrounding mental health conditions. Stigma only leads to silence. Silence leads to despair. And despair can lead to debilitating conditions and unproductive lives, as well as serious risk of self-harm and suicide.
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