Throughout the decades, school health education programs have grown and expanded to encompass the many issues facing American children: anti-smoking initiatives, drug and alcohol prevention, sex education, nutrition and obesity. Now, with the intensifying pressures and stress children often must cope with, many parents would like to see mental health added to that list of health education subjects.
"Students today feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders--a recent Stress in America survey reported that teens were more stressed than adults," says Brenda Manfredi, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at St. Joseph Health Medical Group. "In addition to juggling obligations at school, home and, for older teens, work, there is the additional pressure of navigating a social life not just on campus but on the Internet via social media. Anxiety, depression, cyberbullying--these are all very real concerns for kids today."
And many parents recognize this. In the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, two-thirds of respondents--parents of middle and high school students--said school health education curriculum should address mental health issues. However, only one-third of parents said their children actually learned about mental health in school. This corresponds with an earlier Mott Poll about parents' top 10 child health concerns, which included bullying, stress, suicide and depression. Other concerns on the list can also affect children's mental health, such as school violence or abuse and neglect.
"Addressing these subjects may help students grappling with problems by giving them information on how to cope and a venue to discuss their concerns," Dr. Manfredi says. "By bringing these issues out in the open, it may help kids realize they aren't alone in their anxiety or stress, that there are peers out there who feel the same way and that there are ways to get help." Students also benefit academically, as research states that mental health initiatives can improve attendance and academic performance. And more engaged students make for a stronger campus community."
Mental health education is a natural fit for an overarching health education program, Dr. Manfredi adds. "There is research that found teens who suffered from depression were more likely to smoke, drink alcohol or take drugs, and those subjects are all mainstays of health education programs. They are all integrated, and if mental health isn't covered in schools there's an important piece missing from the overall health curriculum."
The health education poll also found overwhelming support for teaching students first aid and emergency life-saving techniques such as CPR; there was also more limited support for showing kids how to navigate the health care system. "Teaching kids about health encompasses a vast number of issues, and that it's important to give students the tools to achieve lifelong wellness--mentally, physically and emotionally," Dr. Manfredi says.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.