Wouldn’t it be strange if schools required PE Class (aka: Physical Education or Gym Class) for students with physical health conditions such as asthma, allergies, and obesity? And what if PE was optional for the so-called healthy kids?
Can you imagine the shame and stigma for the kids in Gym Class?
Thankfully, schools don’t do that! But it’s a decent metaphor for how mental health is handled in K-12 schools.
In the vast majority of schools, mental health is considered a “Tier 2” or “Tier 3” intervention. That means the only students required to participate in mental health are those living with mental illnesses, disabilities, or behavioral issues. These students are given an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a custom learning plan developed by a school psychologist with input from parents, teachers, and school counselors.
Clearly, we need school psychologists and counselors to help the mind, just as we need school nurses to help the body.
But what about the rest of the students – the ones without an IEP?
Are we teaching ALL STUDENTS positive skills that lead to a greater sense of mental health?
Are we helping them develop respect, responsibility, and resiliency? What about coping skills for stress and anxiety? (Couldn’t we all use a little more of that?)
To push back, some people think mental health skills (sometimes called social-emotional learning or SEL) should not be taught in schools. They say it is the primary responsibility of parents to teach these skills at home. The concern is that social-emotional learning programs will push controversial agendas and indoctrinate their children with radical belief systems.
As a father of four kids, I share this same concern, and I agree that parents and guardians should hold the primary responsibility. But I also know we live in the real world, and there will always be a percentage of students who lack a healthy support system at home. Even homes that make a consistent effort (like mine) could use some help along the way.
That’s why I believe all students need Mental Health & Wellbeing Class, offered without any type of agenda or bias (like our new Mental Health 101 Curriculum). Let’s teach kids the life skills and universal values we all agree on: how to have a respectful conversation even when we disagree, how to see our diversity as a core strength that unifies our country, how to amp-down when you’re feeling amped-up, and so on.
Think about PE Class. In the not-too-distant past, PE was not even offered at schools. But we did the research and found overwhelming proof that PE helps all kids perform better in life… not just physically but also socially and academically.
You’d think by now Mental Health & Wellbeing Class would be a no brainer (pun intended), but in my experience, after speaking at over 800 schools, I’ve never seen it required as an actual class in any K-12 school.
That’s when we said, “how can we help?”
How We’re Helping All Students
During the pandemic, I teamed up with some of America’s top educators and mental health professionals to create a new book and curriculum called Mental Health 101.
Our goal is to help fill the gap by providing schools with a mental health curriculum that 1) prevents self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors like self-harm, violence, depression, and anxiety, and 2) promotes positive behaviors like resiliency, emotional intelligence, and positive coping skills for stress and anxiety.
We believe in a three-part approach to mental health in schools, and we believe all students should experience the first two parts.
1. Mental Health & Wellbeing Class (All Students: Tier 1)
We envision a future where all students take Mental Health and Wellbeing Class as a normal part of the school day, just like math, science, and reading. We are already piloting our Mental Health 101 curriculum in schools, and we can’t wait to measure the impact, so we can make improvements along the way.
2. Prevention Programs (All Students: Also Tier 1)
All students benefit from programs that help prevent and reduce at-risk behaviors like bullying, self-harm, violence, and substance misuse. Prevention programs come in a wide variety of formats from school assemblies to social and emotional learning programs.
3. Individual Interventions (Some Students: Tier 2 and Tier 3)
School counselors and school psychologists have a huge responsibility in developing custom IEPs (individualized education plans) for students with mental health challenges and/or behavioral issues. These plans often include counseling or therapy, and sometimes they include medicine prescribed by a doctor.
The reality is: schools need all three tools at their disposal, but only have the last one: individual interventions.
Interventions, by definition, are meant to reduce or fix existing problems.
(And we do have a problem!)
The Centers for Disease Control found that during the first year of the pandemic (from February of 2020 to March of 2021) suicide attempts for teenage girls ages 12 – 17 rose by 50.6% compared to the year prior. (Click for source.) These are actual teens with names and families and hopefully big dreams for their lives.
Despite the growing need, schools remain under-staffed in the counseling department. The ratio of students to school psychologists is a staggering 1,400 to 1, and for school counselors, it’s almost 500 to 1. (Click for source.)
And that says nothing of the first two steps, Mental Health Classes and Prevention Programs.
All of this begs the question: without all three steps, why do so many students survive and thrive at school and in life?
In short – it’s their parents and guardians.
It’s the support systems surrounding them (the trusted adults, teachers, friends, and programs) that keep them afloat during the storms of life.
By the same token, kids without that support system are left without a lifeboat.
As parents, educators, and community members, the system will never change unless we raise our voices and seek effective solutions for all students.
Without significant change, many students will remain isolated and lost at the time they need us the most.
4 Ways You Can Help
Here are four ways you can join the mission:
1. Purchase two copies of Mental Health 101 for Teens on Amazon. Read one copy and give the second to a teen or an educator in your life. And please leave a book review on Amazon! Here’s the link: https://www.amazon.com/Mental-Health-101-Teens-Intelligence/dp/B08QC3SM45/.
2. Help us spread the word about MentalHealth101.org by posting about our program on your social media apps. Share your own story and use the hashtag #MentalHealth101.
3. Ask your local school to book one of our Mental Health School Assembly Programs. We have training programs for all age groups, including students, parents, and educators.
4. Ask your school to use the Mental Health 101 Curriculum as a “Tier 1 Class” (meaning a required class for all students). Our online curriculum includes a brand new Teacher’s Guide packed with resources like:
Classroom Discussion Questions
Collaborative Conversations & Group Activities
Student Journal Prompts
Family Discussion Guides available in English, Spanish, and Chinese
The world is facing a growing mental health crisis. Depression, anxiety, and violence are on the rise. And if we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got (as the saying goes), so that means WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING.
For us, the mission is clear: do our part to make Mental Health and Wellbeing Class a “Tier 1” required course at schools around the globe, just like math, science, and reading.
We hope you’ll join the mission and help make it a reality at your school!
Please fill out the contact form at https://mentalhealth101.org, and we’ll connect with you soon.