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Mental health conversations in the classroom can make all the difference in your students’ well-being

For our youth to maximize and enjoy the time they have, and for that same benefit to extend to all of us, leaders in education must not delay in stressing K-12 mental health education as a priority. 

Mental health conversations in the classroom can make all the difference in your students’ well-being
[Monkey Business/AdobeStock]

It’s no secret that mental health crises are on the rise. With so many students in K-12 schools unable to see a way out of their current chaotic environment, it is so important for them to be properly equipped to protect themselves as they grow and learn. Mental wellness education can help ensure students understand key mental health concepts and have the resources and coping skills necessary to handle mental health crises in themselves and others.

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THE OPPORTUNITY TO TEACH STUDENTS

Mental health emergencies among students are, unfortunately, on the rise. Due to stressors like the ongoing pandemic, bullying, and financial insecurity, 40% of high school students reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless over the past year. With suicide already a leading cause of death among young people before the pandemic, suspected attempt rates started rising in May 2020, especially among 12- to 17-year-old girls. For that age group, from Feb. 21-March 20, 2021, emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts increased 50.6% compared to the same period in 2019.

As the stigma around mental health declines and the need for support goes up, the journey ahead is still very much uphill. Schools still lack consistency in teacher training and school climate (healthy culture) requirements. All 50 states are also struggling to help schools bring mental health facts and tools to students.

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According to the recently released “America’s School Mental Health Report Card,” there is a severe shortage of trained professionals, such as counselors and social workers, to bring to the front lines. The nationally recommended ratio of students to psychologists is 500:1, and only Idaho and Washington, D.C., exceed that ratio. In the states of Alaska, Georgia, Missouri, Texas, and West Virginia, every one psychologist is serving more than 4,000 kids.

These kinds of shortages are disastrous not only in their capacity to leave suffering unremedied, but also in that children with mental health difficulties may find it harder to cognitively process other information they are taught in the classroom. The lack of mental health support can have a direct, negative influence on the ability of kids to be academically successful and, subsequently, to gain jobs and careers that would provide joy and stability.

The good news is that people are not ignoring the current state of mental health education. On a state level, there are increasing calls to add mental health education to curricula, as well as to improve areas such as screening, training, and suicide prevention. Thirty-eight states already require mental/emotional health education for all students.

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According to our internal research, the overwhelming majority of educators also believe it’s important to include mental health and related issues in their schools’ curricula. They support integrating social-emotional learning into schools because it can help improve academic achievement, reduce disciplinary problems, and leave kids better prepared for jobs that depend on interpersonal skills. This combination of awareness and willingness to make changes provides an excellent opportunity to move forward.

EMPOWERING STUDENTS TO FURTHER REDUCE MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA

Even though it’s important for students to have trusted adults to go to for help, kids overwhelmingly turn to each other for support when they’re going through rough times. Combined with the fact that there is not yet a sufficient ratio of professional support in schools, this means we must empower kids to tackle the mental health issues they can.

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Implementing mental wellness classes or lessons is one path toward this goal. It encourages candid conversation among peers about how they feel and what they’re experiencing. Getting kids to talk openly about mental health can replace the isolating stigma around mental health challenges with a healthy sense of community and empathy. With that stigma out of the way, and with students armed with solid mental health strategies, the door is open for students to take action for both themselves and others.

Today’s youth are proving they understand the mental health challenges in front of them and are ready to take on this responsibility. The National 4-H Council conducted a teen survey in which 82% of participants urged Americans to talk more openly and honestly about mental health issues. Eighty-three percent agreed that it’s important for people to take action regarding their mental health. But this doesn’t mean kids want to be left completely alone in battle—79% of students said they wished their schools would offer a “safe, inclusive space” where they could talk about mental health.

A BRIGHTER FUTURE IS POSSIBLE, EVEN BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

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Mental health courses and integrated lessons can provide statistics, facts, and other information that help students understand their own mental health and what might be happening with their peers. For instance, before and after taking a course on mental wellness basics:

  • The number of students who said they’d feel uncomfortable around someone with a mental health condition decreased from 23% to 11%
  • The number of students who agreed people think less of someone who has received mental health treatment decreased from 46% to 17%
  • The number of students who said they’d feel compassion for someone with a mental health disorder went up from 81% to 84%
  • The number of students who said they can easily understand what someone with a mental health disorder is going through went up from 58% to 69%

But importantly, students can take what they learn and bring it into their homes and communities. They can interact in healthier ways and teach others, not just during their school years, but for their entire lifetime.

Mental health education is an ever-changing landscape, but it’s time to make it a priority. By incorporating it into schools, we can equip the young people of today to address mental health challenges in both themselves and others. For our youth to maximize and enjoy the time they have, and for that same benefit to extend to all of us, leaders in education must not delay in stressing K-12 mental health education as a priority.

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Alice Lee is a Former Educator and Senior Vice President, K-12 Implementation at EVERFI.

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