Of the 50 million public school students in the United States, one in every five exhibits signs of a mental health disorder. In addition, more than half of the population affected by mental illness exhibit symptoms before the age of 18. Despite the prevalence of mental health issues among teens, there is a ten year gap in the age of onset of symptoms and seeking help. Why aren’t more teens seeking treatment? Why are teens so reluctant to speak out about their mental health? This is a result of the false stereotypes regarding mental health. There is a common misconception that people with mental health issues are in control of their disabilities and responsible for causing them – despite evidence that this is not the case. The stigmatization of mental illness in combination with the misconceptions around mental health disorders silences teenagers from addressing their mental health. In order to eliminate the stigma and increase teens regard for their mental health, schools need to provide students with access to accurate education about mental health.
To combat the issues of stereotyping and poor education regarding mental illness, states have taken action to enforce mental health education in schools. This past July, New York state added onto its Education Law and became the first state to mandate mental health education within the curriculum. “Decreasing stigma, changing attitudes and giving students practical knowledge they can use when it comes to mental health problems they or others face is why New York passed this legislation,” says New York’s State Education Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia.
Although New York was the first state to enforce this law, many other states, including Virginia and Indiana, have adopted a similar curriculum. Just last year, Virginia amended their Physical and Health Education Act to include learning about mental health in the ninth and tenth grade curriculum. The success of this program has even caused some states to reach out to the Mental Health Association of New York State about how to implement a similar program elsewhere.
Teens are a high-risk age group for developing mental illness, and schools are the right setting to educate kids about this prevalent problem. Anthony Jorm, author of Empowering the Community to Take Action for Better Mental Health, notes three small studies that found that “teaching high school students about mental health improved their attitudes toward treatment, increased willingness to seek help from a counselor and boosted their overall mental health literacy.” Early education about mental illness has a positive effect on students’ regard for their own mental health as well as helps dispel the stigmatization of mental illness.
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