Importance of Mental Health Awareness

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Students of today are the future. It is important to make sure that kids are being properly educated, in all aspects, so that they can be successful in life. Yet, mental health education has been pushed off in schools and deemed as not important. As a result, the mental wellness of students has been spiraling downwards. Thousands of kids are suffering from disorders such as depression and anxiety. Kids developing these disorders often don’t get the help or support that they need to know how to handle them. There is a connection between violent activities happening more in schools and the lack of mental health stability. Actions need to be taken to save and improve the quality of students’ lives. These recent changes in school environments and the mental wellness of students has led to the need for an increase in mental health support and awareness in schools. 

Over the past few years, there has been a huge increase in gun violence and shootings in schools. So much so that it has been considered a public health crisis in many cases. Martell L. Teasley, who has a Ph.D. in social work, said in an article he wrote that school shootings “increased from 179 to 245 between the 1990’s and 2013” (131). That is an increase of 66 school shootings in 23 years. In the past 10 years alone, 356 kids have lost their lives in a school shooting (Walker). The fear is that this number is going to continue to rise. People are concerned about protecting students from future school shootings, but most of the time their focus is on debating gun control, rather than mental health concerns (Katsiyannis 2562). Research has found that almost all school shooters showed signs of poor mental health prior to their attack. A majority of school shooters have experienced bullying, isolation, lack of friends, have recently gone through the loss of a loved one, or have records of the use of psychiatric medication (Teasley 131). Other shooters have shown signs of depression, anxiety, or a personal failure before the shooting. (Katsiyannia et. al 2564). All of these signs go back to the lack of care and watch over the mental wellness of students. Not only are students losing their lives because of the mental state of their peers, their own poor mental health is also taking the lives of thousands of kids across the United States every year.

Along with school shootings, there has also been an increase in teen suicides in recent years. From 2007 to 2017, teen suicide rates have gone up 56%. It is now said that 10.6 out of every 100,000 students commit suicide (Wan). Suicide is the second most common cause of death in teens. Grace Gallagher, executive director of a foundation for revolutionizing teen mental health, stated that, “More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined” (Qtd. in “SEL in Action” 52). As Gallagher later explained, these numbers are more than just statistics, they are the children (52). All of these children that commit suicide are choosing to end their own lives due to having poor mental health. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that 29.4% of students at a public high school in Rhode Island felt sad or hopeless, and 13.6% of the students had made a plan to commit suicide (Pelligrino 56). No kid should ever feel so sad or worthless that they see death as their only option. So many kids are losing their lives because their mental health is not being valued or cared for as much as it should be. With as many students as there are suffering from mental health disorders and problems, there needs to be an increase in mental health awareness for the sake of the lives of these students.

Many people are not aware of just how many students suffer from poor mental health. Around 18-22% of all kids in the U.S. experience mental health issues. Five to eight percent of these adolescences have serious or diagnosable problems (Maag, and Katsiyannis 173). With so many adolescences having mental health disorders, mental health awareness truly has become a public health concern. Lisa M. Horowitz, a pediatric psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, was quoted in William Wan’s article saying “It should be a call to action…If you had kids suddenly dying at these rates from a new disease or infection, there would be a huge outcry. But most people do not even know it is happening. It’s not being recognized for the public health crisis it has become.” The number of kids dying from school shootings and suicides has been increasing. However, not much is being done to help improve the mentality of these students to decrease these fatality rates. Mental health disorders affect a lot of kids, most from young ages, and increasing mental health awareness in schools will help improve the quality of the lives of these students.  

Schools have a large impact on shaping the lives of their students, and this includes their mental well-being. Most mental health disorders begin at a relatively young age. Half of all lifelong mental health disorders begin around age seven to mid-teen (Teasley 131). These problems developing at such a young age are often the result of what students are going through in school and during these stages of their life. Students in school are exposed to a substantial amount of harmful issues such as bullying, peer pressure, substance abuse, alcohol issues, stereotypes, and discrimination (Knitzer et. al 102), (Pinfold et. al 48). All of these aspects can have a very negative impact on the mental health of students. Even trying to balance the stresses of school, jobs, sports, and social life can be overwhelming to kids and can lead them to disorders such as depression or anxiety. Without being properly educated on mental health awareness, students don’t understand that they are not alone in what they are going through and that help is available to them. They might feel too ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help (Teasley 132). Increasing mental health awareness at a young age can show kids that it is okay to need counseling or mental health support. Kids need a lot of support during these times to help them get through life, but more often than not there is not sufficient help available to them.

 There are a lot of kids in schools today that need help with their mental health, but oftentimes it is not available to them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20% of all students need some kind of mental health service (Teasley 131). However, a majority of students do not receive this help. Children who have bad home lives may not have the money or the transportation they need to get help from a counselor (Simmons-Duffin). This is where school counselors and other mental health professionals at schools become important. The problem is, a lot of schools do not have enough counselors to provide adequate help to their students. The National Association of Social workers recommends that schools have one mental health advisor for every 250 students. The current average ratio of mental health advisors to students is one to one thousand (Teasley 131). Especially in larger schools where there are so many kids and so few counselors, there is not as close of a relationship between the counselors and the students. Kids do not feel comfortable going to the counselor with their problems because of this. Schools need more counselors, psychologists and social workers that can address these increasing mental health issues and give students the proper mental health care they need and deserve. Increasing the counselors, as well as addressing these issues from a young age can help to decrease the number of kids with mental health disorders.

 Addressing mental health issues from a young age has shown to be effective in decreasing long term mental health disabilities. An article that was written about the impact of mental health awareness programs explained that the prognosis for mental health illness is improved through “early detection and intervention” (Pinfold et al. 48). Kids are suffering from mental health problems at such young ages, so it is crucial to address them while it is relevant to their lives. John P. Salerno, a board-certified family physician in NYC, said that “barriers to mental health treatment in youth such as mental illness stigma and mental health literacy must be addressed to improve health trajectories and prevent disability later in life” (922). Early intervention can help to stop the disorders from developing or at least prevent them from developing into more serious problems later in life. Psychologist, Mary Alvord, was quoted in Selena Simmons-Duffin’s article stating, “If students can learn this kind of resilience, the ability to adapt to emotional changes…I think the whole world gets better.” Alvord believes that an increase in mental health awareness will improve the conditions of the country, making it a happier and safer place for future generations to grow up in. Kids need to be taught basic skills and information for how to protect themselves from poor mental health, or how to overcome their mental health problems. Awareness is so important while kids are young, and schools are one of the most logical places to address this issue because it is where kids spend a majority of their childhood.

 Some people believe that addressing mental health issues is not a responsibility for schools. The textbook definition of a school is an institution for educating children. This definition does not say anything about taking care of the mental health of students. Some people believe that this is a job for the parents of the students and the people who specialize in the area of mental health (such as doctors or psychologists), not school counselors and teachers. Schools cannot meet every need of every student, and it is not their job to do so (Maag and Katsiyannis 178).  By textbook definition, schools may not be responsible for taking care of the mental health of their students, but they are the most logical place for these problems to be addressed because of all the time the students spend there.

Schools are the optimal place for kids to be taught mental health awareness because of the large influence they have on students’ lives. In his article, John P. Salerno stated, “Schools are an obvious setting to implement universal interventions targeting adolescence” (923). Students spend 7 hours a day, 5 days a week for 36 weeks at school, meaning they spend a lot of their childhood there. Teachers see these kids every day and they can observe the social interaction, behavior, and academic performance of these students (Maag and Katsiyannis 173). They notice how the kids act in class, what their social life is like, how much they do/do not talk, as well as any and changes in their behavior. If kids use long sleeves to cover up their cuts, or if they write depressing or emotional things in their English essays, teachers can see these actions and get those kids the help that they need (Dowling and Doyle 586). Students are also familiar with their school so they might feel more comfortable getting help from people and a location that they are used to. It is important that kids are taught the basic framework for understanding mental health, and kids are known to learn best at schools (Pinfold et al. 50). Teachers know the most efficient way to teach the children, and kids may not listen to their parents if their parents try to address the issue at home. Schools are the most logical place to teach kids about their mental health and the overall awareness of it, but with the school’s involvement in the emotional wellness of their students comes the concern regarding the privacy of the students.

Even though some people are in favor of schools getting involved with students’ mental health, there is still a concern about the privacy issues that come with this involvement. Mental health is considered a medical-related disorder, meaning people have to be well educated to legally handle it. On the website www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org, it is said that says that the National Council for Behavioral Health does “not knowingly collect personal information from children younger than 18” and that they delete it if they have it. However, schools already have the majority of a student’s personal information, such as medical records. School counselors are educated and trained to handle situations that involve providing help to students, and they know that they are not allowed to share any of the personal information. It is important that students get the help that they need when they need it, and if a school counselor is the most accessible for a student, then that is all that matters. People working in schools have respect for students’ privacy. They care about the students and want to be able to help.

Many people are not well educated on mental health disorders due to the lack of mental health awareness, including teachers. In fact, a majority of people are “not adequately resourced to respond effectively” to self-harm and other acts of mental illnesses (Qtd. by Dowling and Doyle 584). Not everyone knows all of the signs and symptoms that come with a mental health disorder, nor do they know how to handle someone with one of these illnesses. 150 teachers in the U.S that participated in a study were found to lack confidence in their knowledge and experience with self-harm and cutting, saying that they said that they need further training on it (584). Some teachers also are not aware of the signs of depression or suicidal thoughts, but students may be exhibiting these signs in front of them every day. A study done in an article by Susan Dowling and Louise Doyle (with permission of the Faculty of Health Sciences Ethics Committee) showed that teachers felt worried, helpless, sad, fearful, and even in shock when they were informed about the mental illnesses that some of their students had (587). Teachers and staff want to help improve and save the lives of their students, but they do not know how to due to their lack of knowledge of mental health, all of which is an effect of poor mental health awareness.

Just as some teachers lack confidence in their knowledge of mental health disorders, many students are also rather uneducated on the topic. An article about mental health intervention in schools from the Journal of Human Growth and Development wrote that it was found that the kids in a study done knew little information about addictions and mental health disorders. These kids knew a little bit about anorexia, and hardly anything about autism or behavioral issues (Campos et al. 262). The researchers from this article did a mental health awareness activity with a group of students and almost all of the students said to know less about mental health disorders than they thought they did after doing the activity. It was also noted that this awareness activity helped to improve the students’ attitudes toward mental health (263). This negative attitude, along with the absence of knowledge and comfort with mental health disorders, comes from a lack of awareness.

The lack of knowledge and awareness for mental health disorders has led to people having a stigma on the subject. Too many people associate negative thoughts when they hear the words “mental health disorder”. This comes from a lack of information and ignorance. Stereotypes against mental health illnesses are mostly developed during adolescence, so increasing the awareness while kids are still in school will result in less stigma (Pinfold et al. 48). Various programs have helped to build positive responses to mental health disorders within students. In an article from World Psychiatry, it is stated that the “attitudes of young people can be significantly and favorably influenced by short ‘awareness raising’ sessions” (50). Studies have been done that show there is a less negative connection with mental health after an awareness activity. It has been found that a mental health awareness questionnaire created by the UPA was an “appropriate methodology to reach purposed goals” of decreasing the stigma on mental health (Campos et al. 265). Not only does the stigma need to be decreased through increasing mental health awareness, but it is also important to increase the counselors’ availability to help these teens who already have mental health disorders.

 Counselors play an important role in providing the guidance and support that is crucial to helping students in need, but this role has changed over time. School counselors first began working to focus on the social and behavioral issues of students. Today, school counselors are instructed to spend a lot of their time doing paperwork or dealing with scheduling (Klein and Shah 22). This takes a counselor’s focus off of the mental health of students. Many counselors express feeling stressed trying to handle everything they are asked to do, and they feel like they do not spend as much time counseling their students as they should (Crowe 205). If schools increased their mental health awareness and allotted more time for counselors to counsel their students, the lives of many kids could be turned around. School counselors are facing the bigger problems of today, such as an increase in suicide attempts, depression, and poverty: however, they no longer have the push, skill, knowledge, or sources to properly handle the situations (200). The decrease in the sources available to school counselors comes from the drop in the money that schools put towards mental health areas, which has taken a large toll on the mental health care of students.

 Over time, cuts have been made in the funding provided to schools from the government. Schools were forced to make cuts in “non-essential” personnel, and for many schools, this meant letting go of people in mental health-related positions. A school in Philadelphia had to fire 55 of their school social workers- which was half- due to a cut in funding. A school in North Carolina wants to increase their budget for mental health-related purposes for people such as counselors and social workers, rather than spending it all on police and school security. This school believes that increasing mental health awareness will result in less violence and therefore less need for security (Teasley 131-132). Increasing the budget for mental health services and personnel will help to increase the number of kids who can get proper mental health care and awareness. The Public Health Service Act, the IDEA, and Section 504 are programs that have already been created to help with the issue of mental health funding in schools (Maag and Katsiyannis 174). Other programs that have been created to help with non-budget related issues in mental health awareness in schools have also been created in recent years, and they too have proven to be successful.

The lack of mental health awareness has encouraged organizations to create awareness-raising programs in schools to help improve the knowledge and stigma students have towards mental health. PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) did an awareness program that was found to improve school climate, reduce the number of kids in trouble, and improve the emotional status of students (Katsiyannis 2570). This program was able to improve the school environment and help the students to be more emotionally stable. Other awareness programs have also had a positive effect on students. In his article, John P. Salerno wrote that a mental health awareness program he studied showed improvement in the knowledge, attitude, and help-seeking aspects of students. The students that participated in this study did a 10-week posttest, and the knowledge of the students showed to have gone up after the awareness program (Salerno 928). Different programs have also been created to help kids who are struggling with mental health disorders. Crest Haven Elementary School put a program like this into action. An 11-year-old girl attending Crest Haven often came home crying because she was being made fun of for her weight, called ugly, bullied by her friends, and suffering from anxiety. The school decided to offer training to help students, like this 11-year-old girl, through a 12-week resilience builder program. This program helped students focus on leadership, social skills, stress management, problem-solving, and empathy, all while making it fun and interactive. The results showed the program to be effective and long-lasting. The mom of the 11-year-old girl said that her daughter no longer cries as much and she is not near as nervous or anxious as before (Simmon-Duffin). Psychologist, Mary Alvord, says in Selena Simmons-Duffin’s article that programs like these help teach kids at a young age to “switch channels in your head” to focus on the positive. Changes in kids are possible with the help of programs that increase their awareness, knowledge and provide support for those who are struggling. These kinds of programs have shown to be beneficial, but they are only occurring in a few schools. An overall increase in mental health support and awareness in schools across the country will improve the lives of so many students.

Due to the changes in school environments and the mental wellness of students in recent years, as shown in the increase in school shootings and suicides, the mental health of students must be addressed. The best place to increase mental health awareness is in schools, where students spend so much of their time. Schools can teach students the basic information they need to know about their mental health at a young age, when the information is going to be most beneficial to them. Schools can take action by increasing the number of counselors, educating their counselors and teachers on mental health disorders, and providing programs to help increase mental health awareness. This will improve the quality of the students’ lives and it can even save the lives of some. Mental health disorders have become a public crisis of today, it is crucial to take action soon to help these kids that are struggling. After all, kids are the future, and the mental health of future generations is important.

Works Cited

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