Mental health goes to school

Positive mental health is essential for the development of young people, but students are rarely taught how to maintain good mental health and how to recognize and respond to possible disorders. The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction decided to change that this year by including mental health education in the health and physical education K-12 standards.

Thirty-six instructors from all over Washington came together this July in Tacoma to learn how to train classroom teachers in the use of the new Mental Health and High School Curriculum Guide. The program will be piloted in 35 state districts in the 2016-2017 school year through the partnership of OSPI’s Project AWARE and CHI Franciscan Health’s Prevent-Avert-Respond Initiative. It will be part of the required health class at the high school level.

Washington is the only state in the union piloting the new mental health curriculum. Research shows that one in four families will be affected by mental illness, but many Washington students graduate without any lessons about mental health and recovery. Most serious mental illnesses—bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia—emerge between the ages of 15 and 24. The main goal of the new curriculum is to teach students about these disorders and how vital it is to seek help for themselves or people they are concerned about. The earlier an issue is identified, the better the prognosis for recovery.

The new instructors will be training health teachers at school sites to teach and promote student mental health literacy. The curriculum is broken down into 45-minute sessions delivered over two weeks. It includes web-based modules with videos defining mental health disorders and treatments, and will feature families and adolescents who live with mental health disorders. The material openly discusses these issues to help create a tangible link to mental health and everyday life, to reduce the stigma attached to mental health disorders, and to encourage students to seek help.

The stigma surrounding mental health can be debilitating or deadly. The friends and families of your local fire departments and hospital have lost two first responders to suicide in the last month. These deaths not only shocked us but raised the question: Why didn’t these individuals seek help? They were professionals who dealt with the mental health needs of others almost daily. They knew the signs. They knew about resources. Yet they kept their feelings to themselves until they could no longer live with them. If society were more accepting of mental illness, if we understood it more completely, would they have been more inclined to reach out to someone?

If learning and understanding can decrease the stigma that surrounds mental health in younger generations, maybe more people will get the acute care they need and live complete and fulfilling lives.

For more information, go to the OSPI website at k12.wa.us/SecondaryEducation/pubdocs.

Anne Nesbit is a volunteer battalion chief for the Key Peninsula Fire Department. She lives in Lakebay.

Siren’s Song
Siren's Song