Teaching Mental Health from K to 12

Susan Weinstein, Editor in Chief
Care for Your Mind

This year, two state legislatures passed statewide mandates for providing mental health education in public schools. What should kids be learning about mental health, and when, and from whom?

In Virginia, the law directs the state Board of Education to update its Standards of Learning to include mental health material for ninth and tenth grades. New York took this even further, requiring integration of mental health instruction within the health curriculum for all grades from kindergarten through senior year of high school. Health education must “recognize the multiple dimensions of health and include the relationship of physical and mental health.”

New York and Virginia have each taken a bold step by mandating inclusion of mental health in the curriculum. In all fairness, though, many states and school districts have already embraced mental health as part of the curriculum from elementary school through high school, even without a legislative mandate. In a state like Massachusetts, where nearly every city and town has its own independent school district, the state education department’s authority is limited. A law would be ineffective, unless there was specific funding attached. (Read our archived post about some of Massachusetts’ efforts to bring suicide prevention upstream.)

There’s also the question of what should be included in such a curriculum. Learning about mental health doesn’t need to be learning about various disorders, though that can be valuable. Rather, it can cover practical aspects of self-management and interpersonal relationships that make acceptance of oneself and others easier. It can be aimed at helping our youth be healthier and more successful in all their endeavors. And it can make talking about and seeking help for mental health conditions the norm, not the exception. 

To that end, many districts begin their students’ mental health education by incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) in elementary grades. Students develop skills in areas such as problem solving, critical thinking, managing emotions, and making decisions. The foundational lessons kids get through SEL have been shown to lead to better academic performance, self-esteem, employability, and engagement in society. These aspects of children’s development are so important that more than a dozen states have considered or adopted legislation involving SEL in schools. 

Understanding that mental health is interconnected with physical health is also important to learn and experience. Embracing positive lifestyle choices – adequate sleep, balanced diet, daily exercise, coping strategies like mindfulness, and avoidance of harmful substances – contributes to a healthier whole person, an important lesson that bears repeating at various stages of development. Also, being able to recognize and address stress in healthy ways supports better mental and physical health in the short- and long-term. 

With kids 10 years of age and even younger taking their own lives, suicide prevention can’t be a subject only for high school. Kids who have SEL under their belts are better able to recognize emerging issues and to talk with others, particularly trusted adults, about their concerns. But even those whose experience hasn’t formally included SEL can learn that talking about feelings and behaviors is more than okay. Creating the environment in which kids, teens, and young adults can ask for help is something that every school can and should accomplish. 

Bullying, substance abuse, academic failure, self-injury, and suicide are problems that strongly correlate with mental health conditions, particularly depression. The benefits of bringing conversations about mental health and tools for managing emotions and behaviors are justification enough for every school district to be proactive in weaving mental health into education from kindergarten (or earlier) through high school graduation. While kudos are due to New York and Virginia, we really shouldn’t need a legislative cudgel to give kids the education for life that they deserve.

What do you think?

  • How is mental health taught in your local schools?
  • What should be in a mental health curriculum and why?

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