Traditionally, the public perceives the role of the school system as providing an equitable education experience for all students. However, as anyone within the profession of education knows, it’s not that simple. In light of major school-related tragedies, including Columbine and Sandy Hook, the issue of mental health services with in schools has been brought to light. It is important to acknowledge the prevalence of mental health issues within children and adolescents, and empower teachers and students with effective strategies for handling mental health related issues.
It is important to remember that children and adolescents are not well-versed in mental health issues and most have never taken a psychology or sociology course. Many children and adolescents gain their knowledge regarding mental health issues from their immediate family or from the media. As schools emphasize content-related topics like science literacy or math literacy, it is also important to consider the importance of mental health literacy.
By implementing effective programs like “Mental Health for Everyone” and “The Guide” which focus on improving mental health literacy within school systems, educators can facilitate an overall improvement in the knowledge of mental health related issues, attitudes toward mental health, an understanding of the ways to seek necessary treatment. First, it is important to identify and acknowledge the significance of mental health disorders among school aged children.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the frequency of mental health conditions among children and adolescents is surprisingly high, with an average in one in five children afflicted with a mental health condition and devastatingly, less than half of the individuals affected with mental health problems received the needed services to treat their condition (NAMI, 2017). The National Association of Secondary School Principals cites the most common mental health conditions affecting children and adolescents as autism, depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (2016).
Additionally, and even more seriously, it is vital to recognize the frequency of suicide among adolescents. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young people 15 to 19 years old (Shain, 2016, p. 670). These alarming frequencies regarding mental health conditions reinforce the importance of promoting mental health literacy within schools, as mental health conditions can severely inhibit the educational experience of a student and the development of the child.
Next, it is essential to outline the major components of mental health literacy. Initially, early descriptions of mental health literacy included the “knowledge and belief about mental disorders which aid in their recognition, management, and prevention” (Jorm, et al. , 1997, p. 233). More recent descriptions include those same ideas and also the incorporation of removing stigmas related to mental health and encouraging advocacy, self-efficacy, and empowerment for those suffering with mental health conditions (Kutcher, Wei, & Morgan, 2015, p. 80).
Mental health literacy directly addresses the mental health needs of children and adolescent and is supported by a variety of programs implemented within the school systems. How then, with a variety of companies pushing products that promote mental health, do you find ones that actually work? In Norway, a mental health literacy program called “Mental Health For Everyone” is provided free online by the government. This program is focused on mental health promotions through empowerment and focuses on dialogue between individuals.
The online program has been adapted, and a school based version targets grades eight through ten with themes specific to each grade level. The program also incorporates and addresses a variety of learners by including individual and group tasks, engaging videos, and informative lectures describing frequently occurring mental disorders. In addition, students are provided with information about when and where to find help if they believe they are suffering from a mental health condition.
The school program is low-cost and can be implemented over a three-day period. (Skre, et al. , 2013). Using surveys that analyzed changes between pre-tests and post-tests, researchers from the The University of Tromso in Norway analyzed the effectiveness of the program using over one thousand student responses in the three grade levels (Skre, et al. , 2013). Students in all grade levels showed a significant improvement in the categories of symptom profile identification, prejudiced beliefs, and knowledge about where to seek help.
Interestingly, in the category of prejudiced beliefs, female students showed lower levels of prejudiced beliefs than male students of the same age. Because this program is available at a low cost and presents outcomes that demonstrate growth in mental health literacy, “Mental Health For Everyone” seems like a viable and realistic option for implementation within schools. Another effective mental health literacy program used in Canada is called “The Mental Health and High School Curriculum Guide,” (The Guide).
The Guide” was collaboratively developed by professionals within the fields of education and mental health and is used in junior high and high schools. “The Guide” is implemented by classroom teachers who attend a one-day professional development program prior to implementation which has “improved teacher knowledge of mental health disorders and improved teacher attitudes toward mental health” (Kutcher, Wei & Morgan, 2015, p. 581). Like “Mental Health for Everyone,” “The Guide” uses a variety of activities to engage students and takes place over a period of 10-12 hours within the classroom.
Kuthcher, Wei, and Morgan used pre- and post-testing to evaluate the efficacy of “The Guide” in 175 students. Students showed a significant improvement in attitudes toward mental health and in mental health knowledge (2015, p. 584). The improvements shown by students in this study demonstrate that classroom teachers implementing a mental health curriculum can have a significant impact on improving mental health literacy. The two programs discussed in this paper, “The Guide” and “Mental Health for Everyone” focus on the inclusion of mental health literacy in the education system.
Data shows that both programs require a low monetary and resource-based costs, yet offer high-rewards in terms of improving mental health literacy in adolescents. Mental literacy empowers individuals with the knowledge and skills required to handle mental health conditions. Mental health in schools is a very serious issue. As we think about the roles of teachers, we must expand our view beyond that of simply pedagogical content knowledge.
Teachers play a major part establishing feelings of community and are often on the frontlines, identifying students at risk of mental illness. To better serve our schools and our communities, it is integral to integrate programs that emphasize mental health literacy, which promote and emphasize the importance of each student in protecting the climate of the school. Finally, implementing mental health literacy programs globally is a promising strategy for improving wellness for all individuals.