Mental health education must begin with younger students

With the tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain earlier this month, the subject of mental health has become more prominent. With increased conversation, factors like underfunding for mental health prevention and the growing presence of social media are often floated as contributors to mental illness. But one important part of the conversation about mental health is repeatedly left out – education in schools, especially in elementary and middle schools.

This is likely because mental health education in elementary and middle school isn’t very common. Programs like The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, which is part of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, are trying to change this. In partnership with the Bainum Family Foundation, CHHCS will provide training to help counselors at some elementary and middle schools in D.C. develop treatment and prevention programs for students. This is a step in the right direction for D.C. elementary and middle schools, and it’s time for schools across the country to all provide mental health education for their students.

Mental health resources are often only aimed toward children who are at a high risk for mental illness, but do not focus on awareness for all children. However, if there were more programs that spread awareness at a young age, children would be more likely to identify and prevent mental health issues. If kids are provided with education about mental health conditions during elementary and middle school, they’ll be more prepared if they encounter mental health issues in later years.

With increased exposure to these topics, kids will also be receiving a clear message that mental health is something that can be talked about openly, and this could help reduce the societal stigma around talking about mental health issues.

Receiving education at a young age can make a big difference for children. One mental health education program aimed at pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students reduced violence-related behaviors by 37 percent, disruptive behaviors by 27 percent and bullying by 41 percent, according to a Harvard Review of Psychiatry study.

But despite the results achieved by programs like this one, there are still more than 1.7 million youth with major depressive episodes who don’t receive treatment.

Struggles with mental health can happen at any age, so conversations about mental health shouldn’t be reserved for high school and college students. But mental health can be a heavy topic, which is why some may not think that young kids should learn about mental illness in school. Some who are critical of beginning mental health education at a young age have said there are big consequences of inadequate mental health education training and young children may not be old enough to manage topics like suicide and self-harm.

These are valid concerns, but the solution is not for schools to avoid talking to their students about mental health. Some experts claim that children as young as 8 years old can understand death and suicide. If children can understand these topics at a young age, they should be taught – in an age-appropriate manner – about mental health so they can ask questions and be properly informed.

Even seemingly small lessons, like the difference between feeling nervous before taking a test and feeling symptoms of an anxiety disorder, are important for school-age children to understand. Schools need to be educating their kids about the symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression so that they understand how they differ from just being nervous or sad. This will make them more comfortable seeking help themselves and more understanding toward their peers who might struggle with mental health issues.

Education can’t cure mental illness, but it can put people in a much better position to deal with their own mental illnesses and help friends or family members who are struggling with their mental health as well. The more one understands about something, the more likely they are to know which tools to use to ease the problem and the resources to seek when they can’t do it alone.

A good mental health education program can instill this kind of understanding, which is why elementary and middle schools around the country need to provide their students with a foundation for how to take care of their mental health.

Natalie Prieb, a junior majoring in English and creative writing, is a Hatchet columnist.

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