Should Mental Health be Taught in Schools?

Concerns over the recent escalation of school shootings, as well as the prevalence of bullying and student suicides, has prompted many parents and educators to ask whether mental health education should be offered in schools.

An increasing number of parents and teachers are worried about the lack of mentoring and counseling facilities in schools, and many argue that suicides, bullying, and other violent behaviors could be prevented if students had access to a steady curriculum of mental health education in the classroom.

Currently in the U.S., mental health education is still in the experimental stage and has only been tried in a few state school districts. Nevertheless, the responses in these schools have been so favorable, many are optimistic that the results will further the push toward a mandatory mental health curriculum nationwide.

Benefits of a Nationwide Mental Health Curriculum

Research shows that 90 percent of people with a mental disorder start developing symptoms during their teens. Likewise, 13 percent of kids under the age of 18 have significant mental health disorders, which primarily manifest themselves as anxiety, ADHD, and disruptive behavior.

In a recent report, the Harvard Review of Psychiatry studied several school-based mental health programs involving 27 million students. The results showed that these programs greatly reduced anxiety, improved grades, lowered substance abuse rates, and reduced school bullying.

Despite these positive results, some have concerns there may be negative consequences to providing a  mental health curriculum in schools. In a recent article in the UK newspaper The Spectator, one health-writer voiced concerns that too much awareness can breed obsessiveness, causing children and parents to perceive problems that don’t exist. However, research shows that the majority of parents, teachers, and medical experts in the U.S. seem to be in favor of introducing a school mental health program.

How Is Mental Health Taught?

Many of the programs examined in the Harvard Review study consist of daily or weekly classes lasting from a few weeks to the entire school year.

One such program, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), offers classes that focus on self-control, self-esteem, emotional understanding, and social skills, with special relaxation techniques for coping with stress. Through stories, instruction, and role-playing, students learn how to manage their emotions, identify their feelings, get along with others, and cultivate positive feelings and actions.

Typically, these school-based mental health programs also include intervention and counseling sessions from mental health professionals for students who need them.

Schools Participating in Mental Health Programs

In 2010, Will and Deb Binion lost their 17-year-old son Jordan to suicide caused by depression. The Binions channeled their grief into the creation of the Jordan Binion Project, which provides mental health resources and classroom talks to local schools. Since the project’s creation, the Binions have presented their classroom program to 75,000 high school students, and the couple continues to receive a steady stream of letters from kids who say that these mental health presentations are helping them cope with problems in their lives.

In addition, the Binions have used their influence to persuade legislators and school district members to implement mental health education in local schools. As a result, since 2016, nearly 100 school districts in Washington State have been using a highly successful mental health curriculum that was first developed in Canada. Since the curriculum was implemented, 85 percent of students have improved their knowledge of mental health issues, while 66 percent have improved the way they respond to questions dealing with stigmatizing, discriminatory attitudes toward mental health disorders according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

These results have been noticed. In July 2018, New York will become the first state to require schools to have a mental health curriculum. As school violence and teen suicides continue to make news, many parents and educators are hoping that more states follow the leads of New York and Washington by making mental health a mandatory part of classroom education nationwide.

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