What do you remember from your middle school health and physical education class? The mandatory mile run? Perhaps an insincere spiel about diversifying your diet? A very brief, awkward overview of puberty and sexual health?

Do you remember discussing mental health? Probably not! This is because mental health education has never been mandatory. A traditional public-school education is marked by a core curriculum, standardized testing, a physical education requirement, and health class. This health class emphasizes the importance of taking care of one’s body through nutrition, exercise, sleep, and safe sexual activity, so why was mental health never addressed, despite the prevalence of mental health issues in youth?

As of right now, society has a reactive approach to handling mental health issues in which something tragic needs to occur to prompt us to act. Instead, we need to be proactive in helping students cultivate resiliency and manage their mental health. We can be help so many kids by preparing them for the possible mental health challenges that may come with adolescence and making them less susceptible to mental illness by increasing their protective factors via education.  By normalizing discussion of mental health, familiarizing students with resources, and fostering effective coping mechanisms in youth, we can make the transition from childhood to adulthood easier. So, why don’t we?

Most psychiatric conditions develop during late teens, so it is necessary to equip students with tools to manage their mental health and make them feel secure in seeking help before these issues arise. Research has shown that mental health training and resiliency classes have drastically improved the rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide in youth. Researchers at the University of Alberta supplemented health classes with a mental health educational program called EMPATHY (Empowering a Multimodal Pathway Toward Healthy Youth) and saw that the participants were impacted on a fundamental level. In addition to decreasing rates of mental illness, this program caused a decline in the use of drugs and alcohol, and cases of bullying, and its effects have proven to be long-lasting. The data clearly show that these precautionary measures benefit the health and well-being of students, and yet we still fail to take them and help our youth get the support and education they deserve.  

New York is the first state to decide to take action. As of July 1st, New York has made mental health education mandatory at all school levels. Mental health education is now a part of the agenda of the obligatory physical education and health classes for elementary school, middle school, and high school students. This mandate aims to help students comprehend mental and emotional health and aid them in identifying when they need to seek help for themselves or a friend. This law is long overdue, and hopefully New York’s actions trigger a domino effect in other states. Ideally, mental health education will soon be required across the nation, and eventually the world.

Kids are growing up in an increasingly complicated world with unprecedented levels of stress. By teaching our youth how to cope with mental health challenges now, we are setting them up to be happier, healthier, and more productive members of society. The research is clear: mental health education is a powerful protective factor that decreases occurrences of depression, anxiety, and suicide in our youth. Isn’t it about time we teach our kids to prioritize their mental health, not just their standardized tests?

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