Mental Health Care Needs To Start In Grade Schools

Grade Schools Need To Take Mental Health Seriously, And It's Teachers Who Need To Start The Conversation

Schools can do better.

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This is a subject I feel extremely passionate about. So passionate that I initially went into college with the aspiration to earn an advanced level of education in the field of psychology so I could be qualified to help make the differences mental health care needs in grade schools.

I went to a small, midwestern school that had approximately 800 students enrolled throughout the grades of pre-k through twelfth. My school, for the later part of my education, had one school counselor for the ENTIRE 800-person student body.

I want to make it clear that I think the school counselor I had growing up did the best possible job she could being spread so thin and having numerous responsibilities — but I think it was unfair to her, and the students, to not have an individual in the school whose sole focus was to watch after and educate students and teachers on mental health.

In a school that was my size, maybe employing more than one counselor wasn't financially possible — even though I think investing in mental health care should be one of the most important things adults can provide for children and teenagers.

With that being said, I think that if school districts are going to skimp growing children on learning how to maintain their wellbeing and mental health, they should at least educate teachers on the basics of mental health, how to identify warning signs and how to start conversations regarding their students' mental health.

Speaking to my experiences, I encountered very few teachers who seemed to take an interest in what was actually going on inside the minds of their students.

I truly got the impression that some teachers were there only to receive a paycheck — just going through the motions (which I don't think I have a right to be mad about, but as a student, it was frustrating and discouraging). But they would have rather dismissed students as being unmotivated, lazy or misbehaved, than considering outside variables that could be affecting their performances in school (this was also done harshly to students' faces and in front of their peers — if that doesn't diminish an adolescent's already fragile self-esteem, I don't know what will... I'm all for tough love, but sometimes it was just cruel and seemed power-hungry).

Unfortunately, those teachers I felt the most comfortable with and seemed to actually care were often labeled and rumored to be more "friends" with their students than actually acting like a "teacher."

I want to make one thing clear as a former student who struggled with their mental health: The quality of education they provided was exemplary. In no way did I think that those few teachers that actually took a genuine interest in how I was doing made me feel like they were more of a friend than a teacher to me.

Teachers may feel out of their comfort zone when speaking about mental health and feel it is not in their jurisdiction to do so, but some conversation is better than none. Teachers interact with students more than their families do. This means that teachers have the opportunity to be the "first responders" to students' mental health.

There are warning signs that have the potential to be identified by teachers. Medical diagnoses shouldn't be the only reason teachers take notice of their students' mental health. Circumstances outside a student's control can impact whether or not their mental health is cared for.

A miseducation, or lack of education, can also be held accountable as a reason students may not get the help they need. This is where I think the roles of schools is crucial.

In health classes, we were taught about the importance to wash your hands, dental care, how to protect yourself from common colds and the flu, as well as learning a few basics on reproductive health (not sex education, that was never provided) — but never was there a discussion concerning mental health.

I feel this is an issue.

We weren't taught about mental illness and disorders.

We weren't taught the differences between normal sadness and depression.

We weren't taught the differences between normal anxieties and nerves, compared to anxiety disorders.

We weren't taught that if we do feel the extremes of these, we aren't lazy or crazy and that we should seek professional help.

We weren't taught that feeling overwhelming anxiety about showing up to school isn't normal.

We weren't taught that frequently crying in school bathrooms isn't normal.

We weren't taught that wanting to hide in bathrooms to avoid people out of fear isn't normal.

We weren't taught the dangers and consequences of skipping meals.

We weren't taught about eating disorders.

We weren't taught that sleep is the most important component of being healthy as a developing human.

We weren't taught that being stressed out to the point you feel ill is not normal.

We weren't taught the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

We weren't taught about sexual harassment or assault, and how to seek help if we feel violated.

We weren't taught how to combat social pressures — other than saying no, and that's been proven to be extremely ineffective by social psychologists (again, there are many studies conducted and prove this, especially concerning the DARE program).

We weren't taught that feeling isolated and alone isn't normal.

We weren't taught that your GPA or athletic performance does NOT determine your worth.

We weren't taught that your sanity should come before school work and extracurriculars.

We weren't taught about healthy habits to cope with unhealthy feelings.

We weren't taught about the dangers of self-harm.

We weren't that you shouldn't have to stay silent and keep pushing through hard times alone.

We weren't taught that you shouldn't have to keep pushing until you break.

We weren't taught how unhealthy habits, can develop into actual, life-threatening issues.

We weren't taught that feeling like you're struggling with your mental health doesn't make you weak. We weren't taught that asking or seeking help is incredibly brave and nothing to be ashamed about.

We weren't taught about the dangers of suicidal thoughts and the severity of them. We weren't taught that suicide doesn't have to be the answer. We weren't taught that every life is worth living.

We shouldn't have to feel like the only people who could possibly understand what we feel are celebrities who become our role models because they publicly go through their struggles; especially when teachers have the opportunities to inspire and be their students' role models.

All of the above were normal for me, as well as other people I know, along with so many other adolescents going through school.

All of the above were also things that were sparsely discussed at all. It was as if the "we weren't taught" list I mentioned above consisted of prophane, explicit content — and not real life thoughts, behaviors and conditions people have to deal with every day, including students.

The choice by schools to be ignorant about educating students on their mental health is irresponsible and dangerous. I don't have to express the impact mental health has on kids. There are thousands of scholarly articles expressing the importance of mental health care in the lives of children and teenagers that are available to read.

People may argue that schools are simply institutions of education — and the conversation of mental health, to the extent I am speaking about, isn't their responsibility.

But when an institution is responsible for students 8 hours of the day, 3/4 of the year, for 18 years — their students' education is not their only responsibility.

Just as it is a school's responsibility to defend their students from physical harm — it should be their same, equal responsibility to defend students from mental harm — from themselves.

The period of life students spend in grade schools are lonely, confusing, hormonal, frustrating, crucial, important and frankly, forced. Until the age of 16, at least in Iowa, students are lawfully required to attend school. Schools need to make a safe environment on all fronts, especially mental health.

As students who are 18 and younger, understanding how to take care of their mental health is not something they should have to learn how to do on their own.

I want to take a moment to thank the teachers that make sure their students are thriving not only academically, but mentally. The teachers that aren't afraid to possibly be "too personal." Those are the teachers that made the biggest impact on my education and helped my mental health the most. I'm sure other students would agree.

To the teachers just going through the motions, I understand we all have our own lives, responsibilities, struggles and distractions, but please do more than just go through the motions. Show up for your students. Be there for them. The student you may least expect to ever need help may be the one that needs it the most. The student that you may believe is unmotivated and "lazy" may need extra attention or someone to actually give a damn about them.

I believe school systems can do better; for the sake of your students, please do better.



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Stop Discourging Future Teachers

One day, you'll be thankful for us.
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“What do you want to be when you grow up?" It seems like this is the question we heard from the time we were able to talk. Our answers started out as whatever movie or action figure was popular that year. I personally was going to be Cinderella and shoot spider webs out of my wrists at the same time. The next phase was spent choosing something that we read about in a book or saw in movies. We were aspiring to be actors, skydivers, and astronauts.

After we realized NASA may not necessarily be interested in every eager 10-year-old, we went through the unknown stage. This chapter of life can last a year or for some, forever. I personally did not have a long “unknown" stage. I knew I was going to be a teacher, more specifically I knew I wanted to do elementary or special education. I come from a family of educators, so it was no surprise that at all the Thanksgiving and Christmas functions I had actually figured it out. The excitement of knowing what to do with the rest of my life quickly grew and then began to dwindle just as fast.

“Why?"

"Well, looks like you'll be broke all your life."

“That's a lot of paperwork."

“If I could go back and do it again, I wouldn't choose this."

These are just a few replies I have received. The unfortunate part is that many of those responses were from teachers themselves. I get it, you want to warn and prepare us for the road we are about to go down. I understand the stress it can take because I have been around it. The countless hours of grading, preparing, shopping for the classroom, etc. all takes time. I can understand how it would get tiresome and seem redundant. The feeling a teacher has when the principal schedules yet another faculty meeting to talk an hour on what could've been stated in an email… the frustration they experience when a few students seem uncontrollable… the days they feel inadequate and unseen… the sadness they feel when they realize the student with no supplies comes from a broken home… I think it is safe to say that most teachers are some of the toughest, most compassionate and hardworking people in this world.

Someone has to be brave enough to sacrifice their time with their families to spend time with yours. They have to be willing to provide for the kids that go without and have a passion to spread knowledge to those who will one day be leading this country. This is the reason I encourage others to stop telling us not to go for it.

Stop saying we won't make money because we know. Stop saying we will regret it, because if we are making a difference, then we won't. Stop telling us we are wasting our time, when one day we will be touching hearts.

Tell us to be great, and then wish us good luck. Tell us that our passion to help and guide kids will not go unnoticed. Tell us that we are bold for trying, but do not tell us to change our minds.

Teachers light the path for doctors, police officers, firefighters, politicians, nurses, etc. Teachers are pillars of society. I think I speak for most of us when I say that we seek to change a life or two, so encourage us or sit back and watch us go for it anyways.

Cover Image Credit: Kathryn Huffman

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You Can Get In 'Bad Moods' And Still Be A Positive Person

No, it's not contradictory. It's the truth.

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For 10 straight years of my life, starting in eighth grade, I was definitely not considered a happy-go-lucky girl. I was consistently at a comfortable level of happiness, sure, but was I jumping for joy for every part of my day without a complaint? Hell no, I had something to say about nearly everything with my eyes practically rolling out of my skull. Now? I am that happy presence in the room, and I have fallen in love with my new self. Is that weird? Maybe. Is it something so simple that absolutely anyone can achieve it? Absofuckinglutely.

What am I like now? Let me break it down for you, and then I want you to try to say that you have no interest in being this way in your own life, too. These are some of the smallest, yet miraculous changes I have ever applied to my life. My normally structured everyday life, my routines and my habits (good and bad).

Some of the easiest parts of your life are the hardest to break. If you understand that sentence to the depth that I'm trying to convey it, then your life is about to change.

I get up the first time I hear my alarm, every morning. I haven't pressed "snooze" in about six months. I get up at 5:02 am every single day, do you know how hard that is?! But do you know it's the easiest way to make for better days? Start your days better, and you'll see better days.

Get excited to light that morning candle because it's still dark out. A new outfit combination to keep things interesting, and feeling that hot water wake you up and release any tension in your body and bones from the night before. It's a new day, and it's up to you to make it a damn good one.

Right there, you're thinking "I can't be a positive person because sometimes I don't have a good day." Ummm, what? Robot? Is that you?

We all have bad days. Complete dog shit days, actually. Just because we are in the process or are these "newly born positive hippie fairy people", does not mean we can control the universe and what it does to us. The world will break your heart six times by Sunday and that's a damn fact. However, you can fall in love with seven of those days. Stay a step ahead of yourself. You won't regret it.

How do you handle the bad days? Simplicity here too.

Work on what you say and how you say it. I say hello to anyone I make eye contact with. Do you know how many people I pass running through meetings and a high school all day long? That's a lot of smiles. And when it comes to conversations, I never end one sentence on a negative note. Even when I'm complaining, I make sure to find a silver lining, regardless of its size, to end my sentence.

Find that little glimmer of hope and positivity, no matter how stereotypical it seems, and emphasize on it.

Make sure you complete that sentence.

Make sure people hear you.

And yes, sometimes things just really are that bad, and you can't find a good in why something happened when it did, the way it did, or why you're feeling the way you do about it. Guess what? Not an excuse. You can still find hope, but only if you're looking. "Hey, that was so shitty and I am taking it so hard and I really hate everything right now, but it could've been worse, and at least I never have to live today again."

Easy as Sunday morning, right?

You don't have to "STAY POSITIVE" to be a positive person. You just have to promise to always try your best to stay positive. That's literally all it takes. That's it.

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