Here’s How We Finally Address the Mental Health Crisis
It’s time to shift education goals from test scores and achievement to well-being and strength-building
The coronavirus pandemic is demonstrating just how critical our mental health is. In fact, no time in recent history has so clearly shown us the value of being able to manage our emotions and demonstrate prosocial behavior, two top indicators of mental health. Once taken for granted, these traits are now being put to the test.
For instance, RAINN’s hotline (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) saw a 22 percent increase in monthly calls this March from people under the age of 18, a first in their history, suggesting that the increase in stress people are feeling isn’t being appropriately managed. In one recent paper, the United Nations Population Fund “predicted that if strict lockdowns continue for a year, there will be an additional 61 million cases of domestic abuse above what would have already been expected to occur.” These statistics, and countless others, speak to a developing mental health crisis that may be comparable to the pandemic that started it.
In reality, a mental health crisis has been brewing for decades. So much so that May is now Mental Health Awareness Month, and with that we are reminded of this devastating crisis we face when we lack education and services in mental health:
- 15 million children are affected by mental illness or a substance abuse disorder in a given year.
- Over half of all lifetime cases of these and more disorders begin by age 14 with a price tag of over $250 billion annually.
- Between 2007 to 2016, pediatric visits to the ER for deliberate self-harm increased 329 percent, and visits for all mental health disorders rose 60 percent. Visits related to anxiety and impulse-control rose 117 percent.
Meanwhile, the return on investment in mental health is well-researched:
- A cost-benefit analysis on substance abuse among youth found that effective school-based programs could save $18 for every $1 spent on these programs.
- The average return on investment for six evidence-based programs is 11 to one, meaning for every dollar invested there is an $11 return. You can read the 2015 review from Columbia University.
Given the mental health crisis we are in (both with and without the coronavirus) and the proven return on investment, why is mental health not a top priority in our education system? Not only is mental health education in our school systems a good tool for improving the above statistics, but the more we teach these skills of self-awareness, emotion regulation, and prosocial behavior, the more students are able to absorb academics. This is because of basic brain structure and function. Neuroscience tells us that until we learn how to manage our amygdala (using our prefrontal cortex), we remain stuck in the lower, reactive areas of our brains, sacrificing energy from the upper regions of our brains that is needed to assimilate academics. In other words, when we’re angry, depressed, anxious, or lonely, we simply learn less.
As a parent homeschooling your children right now, we ask you, what skills are most important to you? Are you most concerned that they learn who fought the Battle of Versailles or that they have the skills to prevent battle at home — with their siblings, with you, with the entire process of learning? Are you most concerned that they understand the meaning of the assigned Shakespeare quote, or that they understand the meaning of their feelings and those of other family members? Likely, you are seeing the value right now of the skills they need to balance homework with physical and emotional needs, along with the skills they need to help make family meals a place for connection rather than disconnection. Thus, the skills on which you are dependent right now for both a connected family life and academic learning are the very skills we should value as a culture when children return to school.
The Case for a Mental Health Curriculum
In the past, three main barriers existed that made including mental health in core curricula difficult. The first is time. Schools have been hard-pressed to fulfill all the requirements, mandates, and drills in an average school week. However, time is exactly what you get back when you teach skills that enable children to access their executive functions in the first place. The truth is, we diminish time when we don’t teach these skills. Moreover, health class and advisory already exist, as does homeroom, circle time in the lower grades, and an abundance of out-of-school time options. The time is available if we choose to prioritize the lesson.
The second obstacle is money. Schools need money to both train the teachers and provide materials for the students. Today, countless websites exist that can help both for free or at minimal cost. Your Self Series and Choose Love Movement are both great places to start. Whatever the program chosen, keep in mind that the cost of NOT implementing a program is much more financially and emotionally draining (the statistics mentioned above, as well as countless other research, document the link between mental health and financial prosperity).
The third obstacle usually includes proof: parents and administrators want evidence that the changes they are investing in will make improvements. Decades of research point to the benefits of meditation, physical exercise, cognitive-behavioral therapy, proper sleep, and sound nutrition as proactive strategies to boost mental wellness. Additionally, social emotional learning is one of the strongest measures we have to provide students with the skills they need to live mentally healthy lives. It is also one of the most researched methods proving that a robust program can boost grades, improve behavior, and leave a lasting impression.
This pandemic has highlighted with laser beam clarity the need to shift the current educational focus from test scores and achievement to well-being and strength-building — our vaccine against mental illness. Mental health education needs to be part of every school curriculum, at every grade level, for our children to grow up resilient and confident. We simply cannot thrive as a nation when our mental health is failing, no matter how the economy is doing, no matter what vaccine we discover for this virus.
Therefore, seize this opportunity. As your children’s schools request feedback about online learning, advocate for the changes you would like to see. If you feel your children would benefit from more time learning executive function skills like impulse control, analytical thinking, planning ahead, and conflict resolution, say so. Tell your local leaders about the new vision you have for your children to better prepare them for the inevitable challenges we will all experience. Tell your neighbors, tell your friends. Nothing is more important than our children’s safety and mental health. When we stand together, great changes are within reach. At least the coronavirus has taught us that.
Chris Parrott, BPS Chartered Counseling Psychologist, and Paula Prentis, LMSW, are the co-creators of Your Self Series, a free resource for adolescent mental and physical health education. They speak nationwide and run parent support groups. You can learn more at Be Curious Not Furious and PaulaPrentis.com.