Where do grade school students learn about mental health and the importance of taking care of the mind? Unfortunately, there is no class titled “Mental Health Awareness” alongside the mathematics, literature, and science courses in a grade school curriculum. The closest class to this is a health class, but mental health is typically confined to a chapter and not extensively discussed. So, where do grade school students learn about this important topic? Naturally, young people gather this information from listening to others talk about it, or by learning from their own life experiences or those close to them. This can be problematic given the negative bias toward mental health by the media and misinformation from others. With the increasing amount of young people suffering from mental health issues, we must do better with educating our children early about mental health, its importance, and the unfortunate stigma attached to it.
You don’t have to look far to find evidence of the importance of mental health awareness in young people. School shootings, cases of bullying, self-harm, and mental health issues in grade schools flood the front of newspapers unlike ever before. To open the conversation about mental health earlier and broader will not eradicate these issues completely, but there is a large chance these tragedies and problems will drastically reduce.
Although parenting plays a significant role in teaching children about mental health, schools can take responsibility for imparting life wisdom upon its students as well. School settings may elicit different behaviors in children than in the home due to its social nature and absence of familial dynamics. Elementary and junior high school teachers are faced with dual roles: they are the ones who refer students in need of additional support, and they are also responsible for implementing any school-based interventions. To begin, schools can educate their students about mental health by giving proper training to its teachers and staff. In one study, 89% of teachers agreed that schools should be involved in addressing the mental health needs of children. However, only 34% of teachers reported that they felt they had the skills necessary to support these needs. This finding is very interesting as it gives insight into educators’ desire to be involved with mental health issues of students, but perhaps uncertainty as to how to provide evidence-based support.
The same study as above found that teachers feel comfortable to address externalizing behaviors in students (disruption in the classroom, attention problems, etc.), but feel that social emotional lessons are best taught by school psychologists. Teaching is an incredibly important and challenging career. Grade school teachers need support, training, and attention to successfully implement mental health awareness and to feel fully comfortable with educating students on social emotional issues. If teachers were given proper evidence-based training to attend to students’ social emotional issues, or better yet, if a set mental health curriculum were to exist and fulfilled throughout schools, stigma surrounding mental health may considerably decrease.
It is no secret mental health issues have a large stigma attached to it. Depression and anxiety treatment is seen very differently compared to chemotherapy or allergy medication. Why? Mental health is often viewed as the fault of the person and easily treatable when the reality is far from that. Fighting the stigma early can have beneficial consequences and can help remove the false ideas society hold about mental health. There are a few ways we can help fight the stigma of mental health issues in young children. First, we can use different language when we speak about mental health. This tool can be exercised on an individual level in the home or on a larger scale, like a school or church. We can emphasize the great importance of psychological health on academics, relationships, emotion, and self-worth. We can validate thoughts and feelings by reflecting what we see in the student and validating their emotional response. This shows that emotional responses are not embarrassing, important, and often times, provide useful information. Talking accurately about mental health is the first step to removing the stigma around it.
Secondly, we can open the conversation early about mental wellness in our grade schools. Early intervention is critical. Before children are inundated with negative and false ideas about mental health from the media, schools have the great opportunity to teach young students about mental wellness and its importance. It is also crucial to explore what healthy mental wellness looks like. What happens when we attend to our psychological well-being? These success stories can be helpful as well. Lastly, we can empower our teachers and parents to utilize mental health resources and tools for their students and children. Mental health stigma does not always need to exist; young children in schools have the chance to change this as they grow in teenagers and adults with proper mental health education.
Some components of teaching and talking about mental health awareness in grade schools might include: focusing on positive mental health not problems, starting early, and providing links to outside sources. The power of evidence-based practices is strong. Weare found that mental health interventions in schools were only effective if they were accurately and fully implemented. This means the interventions were conducted for a lengthy period of time, started early in the students’ schooling, and were accurately being delivered by trained teachers or staff.
All in all, young children have the capacity to accurately take in information about mental wellness. Schools can assist with providing proper training to their teachers and staff of psychological evidenced-based practices. Teaching young children in grade schools about mental health can help remove the stigma around it, and most importantly, it can help young people identify and receive support with psychological issues early leading to less tragedy, pain, and confusion.