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The National Alliance of Mental Illness has conducted various studies on mental health in teens and children, and many of the results are simply staggering. For teenagers between 13 and 18, one in five individuals has some sort of mental health condition. This includes anxiety, behavior disorders, and mood disorders. It is estimated that about half of all lifetime mental health issues begin by the time a person is only 14 years old. It is even more astounding to learn that the average time between the onset of a mental health condition and some sort of intervention to treat it is between 8 and 10 years. When you learn that 37% of students above age 14 dropout of school, suicide is the third leading cause of death in people between ages 10 and 24, and about 90% of those who committed suicide had an underlying mental health condition, it becomes extremely apparent that action needs to be taken.
Mental health is a very real problem not only in our adult population, but also in our children and teens. The more students learn about mental health at a younger age, the more likely they are to seek help and address mental health issues in themselves and be understanding of others who are struggling with mental health problems. Now is the time for students, parents, and teachers to start having open conversations about mental health.
Why Talk About Mental Health with Kids?
Before you dive into a dialogue with your children or students about mental health, be sure you are having the conversation for a good reason and know how to keep the discussion productive. If you’re having the conversation as part of a health or psychology lesson, the focus and the attitude will be very different than if you’re discussing it because of a more personal event. Make sure you understand your goals as you enter into the conversation and ensure that you have some tips to keep the conversation educational, productive, and on track.
Mental Health Is More Than Just Mental Illness
Kids need to understand from a young age that emotional maturity and being healthy mentally is an important part of growing up, as well as the difference between mental health and mental illness. Mental health is about far more than just overcoming anxiety or depression, although that can be a significant part of it. Talking about the importance of being mentally resilient and understanding one’s emotions will help students learn to balance their feelings and their realities far more easily at a much younger age.
It Takes the Stigma and Fear Away
They say that knowledge is power. Being informed can take the fear out of a situation, and it can also take away generalizations, stereotypes, and overall ignorance of a subject. Everyone worries occasionally, everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, and everyone misbehaves on occasion, but kids need to understand the importance of maintaining a balance mentally and emotionally so that they can live a healthy, full life. Teaching kids that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and that there are ways to get help will assist them in being understanding and not seeing mental illness as shameful or embarrassing. It also will give children the confidence to speak up if they feel they’re struggling with some mental health issues.
It Opens Up Communication and Builds Trust
Whether you are discussing mental health with your own child or with a classroom full of students, being open about such a difficult subject will create the opportunity to have real, honest conversations that can build trust and communication. When a teacher or parent offers the opportunity for an honest discussion about mental health, children and teens are more likely to trust that individual and rely on them if they’re facing a difficult situation. Even more so, if a student finds themself struggling with their mental health, they may be more likely to seek help from the instigator of the original conversation knowing that they will be met with no judgment and potential resources for assistance.
How Do I Discuss Mental Health in the Classroom?
Having a discussion about mental health can be stressful for anyone. However, it is extremely important. If you’re planning to teach a lesson on mental health or intend to have an open-ended discussion about it with your students, we applaud you. It is something that needs to be talked about in our schools and something that we need to remove the stigma from. But how do we do that? How do we have a heavy, deep, intense conversation with students and encourage them to understand the increasing prevalence of mental illness? Here are a few suggestions that we, as teachers, have found to work and that we hope you can implement in your classroom when you have this very serious but incredibly important conversation with your students.
Explain the Difference Between Mental Illness and General Mental Health
The two terms are used interchangeably, but explain the importance of being healthy mentally. Knowing how to handle and face your emotions, knowing how to handle stress, and being able to relate to others are all important factors in being healthy mentally. A mental health disorder or a mental illness is more than just feeling sad occasionally or lacking motivation in tasks. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain that can affect the functions of the mind and body.
Make It Age-Appropriate
Having an intense and detailed conversation about suicide may not be best for extremely young students, but it’s likely that some middle school or high school students have heard stories or may even know someone who has taken his or her own life. Gauge the level of understanding that your students will have about a particular topic, and understand that being honest with your students doesn’t mean that you don’t have to have no filter about mental health.
Describe the Symptoms
One of your goals for having this discussion should be to educate students. It’s great to have an open discussion about feelings and experiences with mental health, but you also want students to leave the conversation knowing how mental illness can affect individuals, as well as good resources people can use in order to seek help for their mental illness. Describe symptoms of a general lack of mental health, such as severe mood swings, confusion, and consistent feelings of sadness. Explain that other symptoms include substance or alcohol use or abuse, confused thinking, excessive fears and anxieties, dramatic changes in behavior or personality, social withdrawal, and suicidal thoughts or actions. However, be sure to stress to students the importance of not unofficially diagnosing others or self-diagnosing. Also emphasize that symptoms of mental illness can often be difficult to parse from other behaviors, and the above list are general symptoms that can occur.
Have Clear Goals
Make sure you know what you’re attempting to do when you enter into a conversation about mental health in the classroom. Is it simply a health lesson? Did something happen at your school that needs to be dealt with in class? Do you suspect mental health struggles amongst students and you simply want to educate them about it? Make sure you know what you’re trying to accomplish and have some clear steps you can take to keep the conversation heading in the direction you want it to go. Make sure students understand the point of the conversation is not to judge or point fingers or start diagnosing their classmates, but it is to shed light on a normally taboo subject that should be discussed more frequently.
Not all students will feel comfortable asking questions in a classroom setting, but some will. And oftentimes, the quieter students will have their questions answered through questions that other students ask. Allow students to have small group discussions about mental health or do some research on their own during class time. You could also have students write down individual questions and submit them anonymously so that you can answer them out loud or individually. Encourage conversation and be sure you are asking questions throughout the discussion as well.
Weave the conversation into your lesson plans, set aside a special day to have some tough conversations like this, or plan an open forum so that your classes can have real discussions about hard truths in our world. We know you are a compassionate teacher and you only want what’s best for your students, so we encourage you to enter into this difficult conversation and help your students and their families learn more about mental health.