Most parents have similar wishes for their kids long before the first diaper is changed. While parents often have preferences for gender, shared values or occupation, the overwhelming quality that parents wish upon their kids is health. I just want my child to be healthy. And while the methods that parents leverage to achieve that goal vary, we spend quite a bit of time trying to help our children identify strategies that will elicit health. Eat well, exercise, take care of your body are often parent mantras to ensure that our kids not only achieve health while they are young, but learn similar principles when parents are not the primary influences in high school and beyond. As the important emphasis on physical health and education continues at school, where state curriculum and designated classes help teach and guide principles of caring for our bodies, it can seem more daunting to give similar play time to the equally important message of mental health.
Many states have incorporated curriculum and training to manage school shootings and, while it is incredibly important to discuss and educate kids to avoid mass tragedies, adolescents and young adults are more than 350 times more likely to die by suicide during their teenage or young adult years than through school violence. This, of course, is not an exercise in comparing or prioritizing education around tragedy, but rather a call to action to treat public health epidemics affecting adolescents and young adults with equal response as we do not have a unified mental health curriculum that discusses depression or suicide in the United States.
There are certainly strong ties between physical and mental health. When we are in poor physical health due to lack of self care, exercise or illness, our capacity to manage the mental health side of our lives becomes instantly more challenging. And in the same way that physical health necessitates effort, our mental health involves prioritizing eliminating stress, attending to relationships, finding our capacity to generate joy and incorporating activities that provide satisfaction and meaning.
So how can parents and schools prioritize mental health at home and in the classroom? Here are 5 integral ways that can help parents, communities and schools place emotional health on the same important platform with which we place physical health.
Plain and simple, education is one of the quickest, least expensive and most productive ways to help people feel more comfortable with topics that they may not understand. When we look at disorders, typically, the less we understand the scarier we find it. This is particularly evident when the consequences are heavy or the cure is unknown. By providing resources about not only mental health disorders but also how to build resiliency and the evidence-based ways in which disorders are successfully treated, we can increase a parent’s or school’s capacity to provide support and guidance for mental health.
Mental health may be one of the most stigmatized disorders we have in modern medicine. Think about how frequently we use a diagnosis, behaviors or a shortened form of a diagnosis to fully describe a patient. Addict. Depressed. Borderline. Cutter. When we think of traditional medicine, we would NEVER label patients as ‘an insuliner’ or ‘melanoma-ey’. This is a place where mental health providers have not helped the people they serve. The medical community describes their patients as just that. A person seeking treatment for leukemia is not a ‘cancer client’ nor is a transplant patient a ‘client receiving a new heart’. They are patients because of their pathology and their willingness and strength to engage in treatment which is celebrated by their status as a patient receiving care for their pathology, just as we should celebrate with mental health.
3. In case of emergency……
When we think of caring for our kids, the one thing we want is for them to know what to do in an emergency. We teach our kids how to dial 9-1-1, what to do and who to trust if they get lost, that they can talk to us no matter what is going on. But what do we do when our kids are struggling with a mental health related difficulty? How can we help our kids know where to turn when they are in need to talk to someone that may not be at home or at school? Suicide hotlines such as The Samaritans provide 24 hour free, confidential support that should be a resource that can be made available in every school as part of a mental health curriculum and as an additional resource for teens and young adults to access. We know that the large majority of folks that attempt suicide reach out to someone in the hours prior to an attempt and having information about what to do when things feel particularly life threatening can be the difference.
When we think of mental health, we often think of it in terms of disorders. However, one of the most debilitating and high risk states that anyone can experience is loneliness. Feeling connected is part of our DNA as humans. It has particularly huge consequences for preteens and adolescents in terms of social and emotional health. With the advent of social media, texting and non-human communication becoming more prevalent than ever (and potentially more problematic), finding ways to connect, particularly to an actual living human being is more integral for mental health.
5. Starting a conversation
This can be one of the most difficult things to do and one of the primary reasons that schools and parents will wait until tomorrow what should be discussed today. Below, please find a very gentle, factual infographic to help start the conversation about mental health. The best outcome that can come from an initial conversation is having a second conversation. Any parent who has seen their child struggle with mental health has certainly experienced the scariest moments are times when conversations don’t happen, not when they do. By finding ways to make it an ongoing conversation, we can treat mental health in the same way we treat physical health in our homes and schools.