It's Time to Start Teaching About Mental Health in All Schools
There’s little doubt that mental health stigma clearly exists. While we have certainly made positive strides in addressing such negative perceptions and discrimination, there is still a long way to go. One may ask, how can we continue to build upon this anti-stigma movement and take it to the next level? I believe education is the answer to this question.
Education should be a constantly evolving field. It is essentially designed to respond to the continually changing needs of a developing and dynamic society. As society changes, the education system should as well so it can meet the new needs. While mental health is certainly not “new,” the growing awareness of it, and the inherent dangers which the stigma surrounding it presents, certainly is. I would go as far to say that awareness is really in the infant stage. In other words, it is a change from the entrenched beliefs of society. Education systems therefore have a duty to address this change. I have listed below a number of reasons why I believe we should be teaching mental health in schools.
1. Stigma Reduction Instruction: People experiencing mental health conditions have been alienated and ostracized throughout history. Society has been slow to change attitudes towards and perceptions of those experiencing mental health concerns. Schools are in a perfect position to address this head on with anti-stigma activities and curriculum. Events can be held which can teach children, parents and community members about the injustice of mental health stigma. More importantly however, anti-stigma should be entrenched right into the curriculum. Just like physical health, mental health and the accompanying dangers of stigmatization can be part of the daily educational curriculum.
2. Unique Teacher Relationships: Teachers are in the unique role of being able to build and foster relationships with children. They are with their students for a significant portion of the day in a safe environment which also includes many peers. As such, many students will often open up about conditions or issues they are having. This is of vital importance, as many of these students will not discuss these issues anywhere else. We can never dismiss the power of positive relationships.
3. Identification and Intervention: Considering the last point, it then becomes critical for a teacher to act on information. We all know teachers are not mental health professionals, but they can have instruction and support through training programs which will help them identify and intervene in a timely way when a student is having mental health concerns. Even just knowing where to go to receive further support can make a huge difference.
4. Decrease Marginalization and Barriers to Learning: For individuals to have equal access to education, marginalization and barriers must be removed. Such barriers could be due to race, gender or socioeconomic factors. However, what has been traditionally overlooked is the barrier which mental health presents. In Canada, approximately 1 in 5 students have some form of mental disorder. This is huge and represents a significant issue in regards to these students truly being able to have equal and full access to the curriculum. By focusing on well-being in schools as part of the curriculum, schools can intervene to remove such barriers and reduce the marginalization of students with mental health conditions. This will in turn give full access to learning for all students (and increase test scores at the same time!).
5. Costs to Society If We Don’t: I would argue that society in general is frequently not very forward thinking about certain issues. By not adequately addressing mental health in schools we will only exacerbate the issue. This will in turn have a huge social and economic impact on society. For instance, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the economic burden of mental health in Canada is $51 billion per year. This includes health care costs, lost productivity and reductions in health related quality of life. Considering such a statistic, how could we not address mental health? Pay now or pay later.
6. Mental Health Conditions Usually Start Early: If you talk to the majority of individuals who experience a mental health condition, they will tell you it started early in life. By addressing mental health in schools and reducing the stigma attached to it, identification and timely interventions can happen much earlier. This is vital in terms of treatment success and can also identify or halt potentially life-threatening situations.
There are still many individuals who argue forcefully against including mental health as part of the school curriculum. They point out that it is too complicated a subject for untrained teachers, too dark a subject for children and opens up the possibility of a biased perspective and presentation. In response to these concerns I would say 1) provide more training for teachers. 2) You cannot find light unless you go through the darkness. 3) There is potential for biased perspectives in any subject which is taught. Mental health has been pushed into the shadows for too long, and it is time for all of society to step up and be part of the solution… and it starts in school!
Mental Health in Schools: How teachers have the power to make a difference. by Leigh Meldrum, David Venn and Stan Kutcher.
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