Mental health awareness is an important issue for all educators, who are often the first line of defense for their students. Education professionals have recognized the impact that a student's mental health has on learning and achievement, and they realize that there's a great deal that can be done to help students with mental health issues. As a high school teacher with more than 23 years of experience, I welcome the fact that mental health awareness is finally becoming an important part of a school's function and curriculum.
Seeing the Signs in My Student
A few years ago, a student in my senior class changed drastically in a short period of time. I noticed that Melina no longer did her homework, and she didn't even try on her essays. Previously meticulous in her appearance, Melina would come to school disheveled, wearing the same clothes. When I tried to speak to her, she was uncharacteristically distant and withdrawn. Because I had some training in mental health awareness, I knew Melina was in some sort of trouble.
Luckily, my school had social workers on staff who could speak to Melina and assess her issues. They discovered that Melina was depressed and suicidal, and she needed an immediate psychiatric intervention. Melina was hospitalized for a period of time, but she was able to return to my classroom a few months later. With the help of medication and therapy, she managed to graduate with her class.
Understanding the Impact
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in five people live with some sort of mental disorder or disease. Despite the fact that the average age of early signs of mental illness is 14, most individuals don't seek help until adulthood. Underlining the seriousness is the fact that 60 percent of high school students with mental illness don't graduate.
New York mental health experts recognized that earlier intervention could result in more positive outcomes for these students. Beginning in July 2018, New York will be the first state in the nation to require mental health education for all students. The overall mission of New York's School Mental Health (SMH) program is to promote healthy social, emotional, and behavioral development of students, and "break down barriers to learning so the general well-being of students, families, and school staff can be enhanced in collaboration with other comprehensive student support and services."
The SMH program supports the emotional health and academic growth of all students with the following:
- Integrating comprehensive services and support throughout every grade level
- Assessing mental health needs through universal, selective, and targeted interventions
- Providing access to behavioral and mental health services and programs
- Leveraging higher-level personnel, such as those working with the Department of Education, for necessary support and services
- Building collaborative relationships between the school and students' families and communities
Spreading Awareness Across the Nation
Until mental health education is a mandatory aspect of all schools, teachers and administrators can work to promote awareness with their students. Key elements to shine a light on include the concept of self-care and responsibility for one's own mental health and wellness, with an emphasis on the fact that mental health is an integral part of health, and the concept of recovery from mental illness.
Teachers and students should be provided with ways to recognize signs of developing mental health problems, and there should be opportunities around the awareness and management of mental health crises, including the risk of suicide or self-harm. Further, instruction should address the relationship between mental health, substance abuse, and other negative coping behaviors, as well as the negative impact of stigma and cultural attitudes toward mental illness.
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Because teens spend most of their day at school, it just makes sense to have mental health awareness and education become part of the curriculum. When we empower students with knowledge, and encourage dialogue, students will be able to get the help they need.