Since the turn of the twentieth century, there has been an especially forceful push for awareness, preservation, and public education regarding mental health. The first two decades have produced results, but the job is not yet nearly complete. Stigma and lack of access to resources are still abundant in society –– even within the United States, that touts being majorly progressive and ‘with the times.’

Despite the stigma that currently envelops mental health education being implemented––out of concern it will expose children to issues that do not pertain to them––prioritizing mental health education in K-12 schools should be considered exigent. Research has proven that children are being severely impacted by lack of access to school counselors and underdeveloped healthy coping mechanisms, that our lack of attention to this issue has a significant cost and effect on society, and that there are ways to cater information to younger crowds without overwhelming them.

De-stigmatizing the misconceptions:

The misconceptions must be unpacked first to move the conversation forward. Advocating and supporting the implementation of mental health education within schools is hard to get behind, if it has yet to be explained to you that mental illnesses are developing in children as young as 7 years of age. This fact is sometimes hard to grapple with, especially if you believe that mental illnesses’ prevalence is exaggerated and not based in fact; I will devote exactly one sentence to those that have yet to come around to the existence of brain chemistry irregularities: scientists have found that MRI, EEG, PET, and ERP scans are all capable of presenting markers indicative of mental illnesses. 

By the age of 14, about half of all mental health disorders have started to show symptoms within an individual. These facts all corroborate the idea behind the need for mental health education. Mental illnesses are by no means foreign concepts to our society’s youth. The only thing foreign is, at times, the words to qualify their feelings, symptoms, and experiences.

Thankfully, creating an avenue for children to come to understand what they may be going through is easier than it was previously considered to be. Research from scientists all around the world has proven that the costs associated with our current mental health pandemic are exponentially higher than what it would take to reverse and mitigate the issue.

How the pandemic is endangering our youth:

As if the previously mentioned statistics are not alarming enough, our reality is even more horrifying. Pre COVID pandemic, school counselors were already overworked and understaffed. The ACLU has previously reported on these numbers from specific counties across the United States, and some reveal ratios like 1 counselor per 433 students; this number falls far above the––also severely diluted––1 counselor per 250 students that is typically recommended. Now, with schools shut down, students’ needs have skyrocketed and counselors have been further stretched thin. 

Many kids have not been taught or lived long enough to have developed healthy coping mechanisms, and their lack of autonomy further hinders their ability to survive being stuck at home this long under these circumstances. There are primary school teachers fearing for the safety of their students’ lives; kindergartners appear to have been dealing with suicidal ideations even before the school shutdowns. 

Counselors in particularly troubled areas have, for that reason, taken it upon themselves to try to ensure their students feel cared for. However, this is not the heroic act you may at first believe it to be. It is representative of the utter failure of our current educational and healthcare systems. Teachers and counselors should not have to drive to 100 students’ houses to try to fill the gap that this pandemic has created in their lives. If we implemented mental health education into elementary and middle school curriculums, students would not be struggling to get by as much. 

There are still those that will have their doubts about the seriousness of this matter. But, they should consider the case of Jo’Vianni Smith: a social teenager, dedicated student, and successful athlete. At the age of fifteen, she ended her life. Quarantine drove her to ––unexpectedly, according to her mother––commit suicide. Our youngest generation is dying before our eyes, and we have sufficient resources to mitigate this issue.

The surprising long term effects:

Nonetheless, emotional (and moral) appeals will not work to convince everyone. Thankfully, the numbers conjointly work for the cause. Both workers and students combating mental health issues tend to suffer from absenteeism because of the interference of their illnesses. This is a problem that creates a major loss in learning – and later in life, in productivity. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that adults with mental illnesses can earn $16,000 less than a person without a mental health disruption. The Economist even predicted that between 2011-2030, more income would be lost to mental illnesses impacting productivity than would be lost to cancer, diabetes, and respiratory stricken individuals. Mental illnesses’ global cost equates out to over 16 trillion, with only cardiovascular diseases coming close but not even matching it.

Moreover, persons facing mental illnesses have life expectancies between 10 and 25 years shorter than that of their healthy counterparts. Which is all to say, foregoing implementing mental health education is affecting all spheres of our lives, whether we are personally affected by a mental illness or not. Teaching, and learning, how to deal with feelings, including sadness, stress, and the like destigmatize feelings that often come with mental illnesses –– while still being applicable to all students. 

The simple solution:

Researchers from the University of California Santa Barbara introduced an age appropriate curriculum into some middle school classrooms in hopes of seeing whether the program (Mental Health Matters) might have an effect. The lectures were split up into five, 1 hour long sections. Children were taught about typical feelings that we all experience and given very basic understandings and knowledge of resources available should a mental illness ever pop up in their lives. At the end, 95% of students reported a greater understanding of mental health.

By not tailoring the program specifically to mental illness education, the issue of usurpation of parental authority is avoided. Some parents will be hesitant to allow the propagation of behaviors and illnesses they do not believe in or unhealthily partake in. This program also came at minimal cost, and with some training, teachers themselves could be the leaders of the lessons. Schools in Baltimore have also integrated mental health education into their curriculum to attempt to minimize classroom behavioral disruptions and mitigate the school-to-prison pipeline in their area, that individuals with mental illnesses are more likely to partake in. Which also goes to show, these programs are feasible and not as invasive as some older generations may believe them to be.