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It’s Time for Schools to Provide Mental Health Education

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Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, yet looking at how schools teach health you might not realize that. Schools teach physical health extensively, but there is a disparity between that and mental health education, which is severely lacking. It’s time for this gap to close. We are seeing what is essentially a mental health epidemic in our schools, and it’s time to do something about it.

Over half of lifetime mental illnesses begin before age 14, and without proper education young people who begin to live with these illnesses won’t know how to properly identify or deal with them (Vestal 2018). The amount of adolescents who experience major depression increased by almost 40 percent from 2005 to 2014, rising to about 2.2 million depressed children between ages 12 to 17 (Vestal 2018). With a problem this significant increasing, we are looking at an epidemic that is seeing little resistance.

Providing proper mental health education to children in schools would help them better understand the problems they may experience, and it would provide strategies for how to cope with such issues. Only three states currently mandate mental health education at the K-12 level in schools — Virginia, New York, and Florida (Hood 2019). To be fair, other states do currently have legislation in the works or already approved in regard to mental health education in schools, but only three states actually mandating it is not enough (Hood 2019). This leaves millions of school children without proper mental health education, leaving them alone with problems they may not even know they have or with no knowledge of how to deal with them.

This is something that needs be instituted at the federal level, because clearly states aren’t taking enough action on their own. The majority of the nation’s children are not receiving proper education about mental health, and this is education that can quite literally save lives. Almost 9 percent of youths in high school (grades 9-12) attempted suicide in 2015 (Vestal 2018). The suicide rate has increased for adolescents aged 15 to 19 from 2007 to 2015 by almost a third for boys and more than doubled for girls (Vestal 2018). These numbers are quite alarming, and increasing mental health education in schools can help lower these numbers.

I know that I didn’t receive any mental health education in my schools in South Carolina. As I reflect on my time in middle and high school, I certainly feel I could have benefited from such education. As a senior in college, I have only recently recognized my mental health issues and begun to work with them. However, I look back and recognize that they really began back when I was in middle and high school, but I didn’t know it because I didn’t know how to identify them. Having that education would have helped me identify my problems and begin to tackle them before they got worse.

I will say I was still lucky in a way. I recognized my issues quickly when they began to get worse, and I immediately sought out help via counseling through my college’s health center. Anxiety with obsessive tendencies — just that diagnosis alone helped me greatly, and I have since made great strides and worked through my issues thoroughly, no longer needing therapy. I consider myself blessed and lucky, but not everyone is so fortunate.

The help I received came free through my college. That’s why I did it. Right now, I’m a broke college student who can’t afford to seek out help elsewhere, and that’s an issue many people run into. Such a roadblock is a massive issue with U.S. suicide rates rising by a quarter between 1999 and 2016 (Vestal 2018). Money is a critical issue when it comes to healthcare, and costs can often prevent people from getting the help they need. For example, the average cost of a readmission hospital visit for a person with a mood disorder is $7,100 (Ellis 2019). Costs should not infringe upon a person getting the necessary help they need, especially when it comes to mental health.

Ideally, the government would be able to provide more services for lower prices, but this is a tall ask. With the federal government unlikely to implement the necessary taxes, it’s likely going to be on cities and/or states to do so themselves. Some already are, such as San Francisco and Denver. San Francisco is working to implement taxes on the gross receipts of highly paid CEOs (McDonald 2019). Denver is also working to implement a small sales tax increase (Quinn 2019). In both cities, the taxes would go toward providing more mental healthcare services. But these are only two cities. Sure, these policies can help millions, but what about every other city in America with their own large populations of people without proper mental healthcare?

Schools are the place to start. Another major step that should be taken is providing counseling in schools. Again, the only reason I was able to get the help I needed is because my college provided it for free. If my high school had given me the necessary education and the means to get help, I may have gotten it sooner. Such a scenario would provide help to millions of children and adolescents at no cost to them, enabling many people to get help they wouldn’t have before.

For this to be a reality, schools would need to hire more counselors, which should be a part of any legislation adding greater education. The American School Counselor Association recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250 to 1, but the national average is 455 to 1, with only three states fitting into the recommendation (Hood 2019). This means counselors in most states are overwhelmed with more kids than they can handle. Many students aren’t able to get help from their counselors, and the ones who do are likely not receiving the quality of assistance they need. And this isn’t the fault of the counselors; it’s the fault of the system that doesn’t prepare them properly and gives them more than they can handle.

Will providing mental health education and services completely eliminate mental health problems with children and adolescents? No. Mental health problems will always exist. However, they can drastically lower the number of those struggling and help prevent future issues later in life by enabling students to recognize and treat their issues sooner.

Our mental health is just as important and serious as our physical health. It’s far past time for schools to recognize this and start teaching them equally. There’s a mental health epidemic among our nation’s young people. Their lives are at stake, and the longer we wait to take action the worse the problem gets. These steps are necessary to take if we truly care about our children and their well-being.

Getty image by jacoblund

Originally published: January 6, 2020
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