Why We Need Mental Health Education in High Schools

Post by Executive Director Erin Raftery Ryan, originally written for Thrive Global on the need for mental health education. Thrive reached out to us to provide perspective for their new #ThrivingMind initiative dedicated to moving the conversation about mental health from awareness to action.

There are so many pressures on high school students today: advanced placement classes, sports practices, extracurricular activities, grades, test scores, applying to college, social media, friends, family, world events. Now consider those pressures if you are challenged by a mental health condition. 75% of mental health conditions surface before the age of 24. Is it any wonder that so many kids burn out by the time they get to college? If untreated, students may feel the psychological and physical effects for much of their adult lives. 

Can we support mental health awareness, end stigma, and change the narrative surrounding mental health for the next generation? That’s a really big ask! But I believe we must try. As a mother of two young girls and a mental health advocate, I am inspired to start the conversation. 

Sometimes just talking about mental health can help someone feel less alone and more understood. Actually, all you have to do is listen to help someone. You can be the difference in helping someone who needs support but is too afraid to seek help. 

Start a conversation! Just a simple conversation creates awareness and can go a long way in helping someone in need. The best conversations have meaningful and mutually rewarding dialogue. When we clearly convey a genuine interest in another individual’s wants, interests, and needs, we can have a positive, lasting impact. Encourage your loved ones, especially your children, to start a conversation with their friends. Ask, How are you doing — mentally? Just like you would ask, How are you doing — physically? 

If you have a broken leg, you go see a doctor. If you have a heart condition, you take medication to help your heart function properly. Why do we hesitate to talk about our mental health concerns and receive the mental health care that we need? Stigma. As a society, we don’t talk about mental health because there is so much shame and stigma surrounding the topic. 

The dominant public narrative about mental health needs to be changed. The best place to start is talking is to our kids. How can high school students spot signs of distress/overstress in themselves and others? 

NAMI-WLA (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has a school program called “Ending the Silence,” designed to give students, teachers, and parents an opportunity to learn about mental health conditions through an informative presentation. The presenters are individuals and family members whose lives have been affected by mental health conditions. They visit high schools to provide “real-life” perspectives based on personal experiences. These free 50-minute presentations are designed to complement health, science, or psychology classes, and are typically presented in the freshman or sophomore year of high school. Each trained presentation team includes a young adult in recovery. For me, this is the key element of the presentation — a young adult sharing their lived experience. When our NAMI Westside L.A. affiliate team members give the presentations, students are more engaged, they really listen to someone that is their age. There is less stigma when a peer is sharing an authentic experience and this trust provides a unique opportunity for a candid conversation

The Ending the Silence presentation gives high school students a compact Mental Health Tool Kit. Some of the topics discussed in the presentation include:

  • Signs and symptoms of mental illness.
  • Statistics on how mental illness affects youth.
  • Personal perspectives on the experience of living with mental illness.
  • Recovery and coping strategies.
  • Ways to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.
  • How to help friends. 

We constantly hear powerful feedback from students about how impactful the ETS program is and how it has changed their perspectives. While it is a privilege to teach mental health awareness, we also have a lot to learn from students. Four high school students in Oregon have taken the initiative to shift the public narrative by championing a proposed state law that excuses student absences for mental or behavioral health reasons. Prior to this, students were only allowed to miss school due to physical illness, a family member’s physical illness, doctor or dentist appointments or an emergency. The law, signed by Gov. Kate Brown has gone into effect this school year and is one of the first of its kind in the country to treat physical and mental health equally. Narrative shifts like this will change people’s focus and the way we frame our thoughts to help build widespread support for mental health. Let’s continue to learn from students like these who are leading by example to end the silence and start the conversation. 

How can you reduce stigma and shift the narrative on a day-to-day level? At my office, we have a stigma jar. Instead of collecting a fine every time someone is caught swearing, we insist offenders pay when they use a stigmatizing word, a mental health stereotype, prejudice, or a discrimination, one dollar goes into the jar. Next time you say the word crazy or insane, catch yourself! This is our team’s small way of changing the narrative in our work environment. 

Wouldn’t it be great if we had Mental Education in schools? We have Physical Education, “P.E.” classes. I think we should have “M.E.” classes. How appropriate is that acronym? Ava, my 4-year-old, practices mindfulness in her preschool classroom. One of the mindfulness exercises asks the students to take a deep breath, focus on their heart and send love to themselves. I was very curious: How does this make the students feel? Her teacher told me about the responses after the exercise, some students felt calm, strong and peaceful. My daughter’s reply was, “I feel real.” I was struck by the clarity of her response. Wow, this is a feeling that most people strive for in life — “to feel real,” to feel validated, to feel that our emotions and thoughts are authentic and worth sending love to. I am proud of her response and grateful to her teacher for creating a learning environment that emphasizes self-care as a priority at such an early age. Perhaps this gives hope that our culture is catching up to our mental health needs.