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Educating Students and Youth About Mental Health is a Necessity

Christopher Williams, Ed.L.D.  MSW, Director, School Based Mental Health and Wellness, SCOE

Mai Xi Lee, Social Emotional Learning Director, SCOE

Adolescence is filled with huge changes in quick succession – whether that’s physical growth, getting your first job, keeping up with school, graduating, or moving out of your family home. For today’s transition-age youth, ages 16-25, they have also navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, school violence, heightened discourse around systemic racism and the consequences of several global conflicts.

The pressure on the mental health of today’s students and youth is unprecedented.

While discussions around mental health have certainly increased over the last few years, we are still lacking in education and resources for young audiences, which means they have not been armed with the tools they need to maintain and support their mental health.

Even before these global stressors, we knew that increased mental health support was needed for youth. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 16-17 experience a mental health condition, and 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24.

The pressure on the mental health of today’s students and youth is unprecedented.

Amidst all of the change and turmoil that accompanies adolescence, many will also be navigating the symptoms of an emerging mental health condition, and without education around mental health and the symptoms of mental illness, they are left feeling like they are abnormal and alone. These thoughts are only confirmed if they are bullied at school or see portrayals of mental illness as violent and frightening in popular movies and media.

Additionally, many of our local youth will come from families that are unfamiliar with mental illness and mental health symptoms or where mental illness isn’t acknowledged or is deemed shameful. This can further stigmatize the topic for them and prevent them from asking for help.

It is crucial that we create an open discussion about mental health in our schools and provide our youth with the tools they need to support the mental health of themselves and others. Without this safe space, students will be afraid to speak to their friends, family or doctors about their mental health, which can have drastic consequences for their short-term and long-term health and well-being.

Instead, we have to ensure that our students and youth are regularly exposed to information about mental health and mental health conditions. Armed with this information, they will know that – just like any physical illness or health condition – mental illness is treatable and they are not alone.

Some ways to increase these discussions include:

  • Inviting a speaker from the Stop Stigma Speakers Bureau to a school or extracurricular event to share their story about living with mental illness, in order to dispel myths and stereotypes and show that you can live a normal, happy life with a mental health condition.
  • Start a NAMI On Campus High School Club, led by students, to raise mental health awareness and reduce stigma through peer-led activities and education.
  • Talk about mental health as a part of overall health and wellness, rather than a separate issue to physical well-being.
  • Have a strong open-door policy where students feel comfortable and safe about going to any member of staff about a problem.  Staff should also be aware of when it’s time to escalate a situation by referring a student to appropriate support.
  • Share and use the conversation starters from the “Mental Illness: It’s not always what you think” project to help youth and adults alike to check in on friends and loved ones who may be managing mental health symptoms.

There is also great information on the website – including a page that is tailored for youth between the ages of 16-25, where you can learn more about fighting the stigma surrounding mental illness in our community.