You Know What We Need? Early Mental Health Education

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 3 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 had at least one major depressive episode in the year of 2015 – and these are just recorded episodes. This is why we need early mental health education.

Mental illnesses cause changes in functions such as sleeping, eating, energy, concentration, and self-image. It is extremely harmful to a child’s development to experience negative changes in these functions between ages 12 and 17. This is why we need early mental health education.

I work at a local inner city after school program. One day, I was doing a craft in the art room with some of my students. I soon learned that the art room triples as the music room and health room. I curiously asked a third-grader I’m close with what she learns about in health class. I was hoping to hear something about happiness, healthy foods, or exercise. The answer I actually got was, “Drugs, alcohol, and stuff.” This is why we need early mental health education.

I know this was just one student’s opinion. But it was also a very mature, kind nine-year-old’s opinion. It made me wonder, if this is was her key takeaway from third grade health class, what could other students possibly be taking away? When did we get to the point where substance abuse is so prominent that substance education comes before mental health education? Especially considering how depression and substance abuse have common triggers? This is why we need early mental health education.

Many adolescents are more comfortable talking about drugs and alcohol than they are talking about why they’re feeling sad. We are not making mental health a comfortable dialogue, leaving children fearful to share their emotions. This is why we need early mental health education.

In case I haven’t said it enough already… We need early mental health education.

Early mental health education doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s mostly just about starting the conversation around mental health, and starting it early. One way to do this is to simply ask a child to share a happy moment from his or her day. If age appropriate, and if there are any suspicions, you could ask for a happy and a bad or “crappy” moment, too, to see if something negative might be going on. This ritual, if started at a young age with a trusted parent, guardian, or educator, could open up the dialogue a lot more than you might think.

I’m not saying we need to give third graders the textbook definition of every mental illness. I am, however, saying that we need to teach children about self-love, self-esteem, and happiness at home and in the classroom, starting at a young age. We need to reduce the negative stigma of mental health disorders, of sharing feelings or seeking help. This could make all the difference in the overall development and quality of life for so many children and young adults.

This is why we need early mental health education.