After five years of pushing for this important legislation, New York State, as of July 1, will require all elementary, middle, and high school students to learn about mental health. New York is the first state to require that mental health be taught to all grades and hopefully other states will follow suit. Virginia recently passed a law, requiring that ninth and tenth graders will receive mental health education. According to the recently passed New York law, nine key points must be taught in all classrooms; including identifying signs and symptoms of mental health disorders, the negative stigma associated with mental health disorders and how to find community resources in an effort to help individuals in a mental health crisis. For decades the New York State Education Law has required that elementary, junior high and senior high schools teach about alcohol, drugs and tobacco abuse as part of the health curriculum and studies have shown the strong correlation between mental health disorders and substance abuse disorders therefore teaching about mental illness in addition to substance abuse will hopefully reduce the stigma surrounding these disorders. This law was put into practice in an effort to help provide mental health literacy as an extension of the concept of “health literacy”. According to the newly passed law, mental health literacy is defined as “knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders which aid their recognition, management or prevention”.

Impact of mental health disorders in childhood

Unrecognized, untreated and late-to-treatment mental health disorders can have a lasting negative impact on an individual’s life, well into adulthood and can lead to co-occurring disorders such as substance abuse disorders and eating disorders and can also result in self-injury and suicidal ideations and attempts. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders followed closely by depression and statistics for adults and children are not dissimilar. It is well established that half of all chronic mental health conditions begin by 14 years of age, half of all lifetime cases of anxiety disorders begin as early as 8 years of age and some 22 % of youth aged 13-18 experience serious mental disorders in a given year. Additionally a large amount of mental health disorders in children and adolescents are not diagnosed until adulthood. The effects of mental illness on children and adolescents are jarring:

  • Over 60% of young adults with a mental illness were unable to complete high school.
  • Transitional Age Youth (youth between the ages of 16 and 24) with mental illness are 4 times less likely to be involved in gainful activities (employment, college or trade school).
  • Those with a psychiatric disability are three times more likely to be involved in criminal justice activities. Nationally, each year, approx. 157,000 youth between 10 and 24 years of age receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries at emergency departments across the U.S.
  • 1 in 12 high school students have attempted suicide.

Bullying and mental illness

Between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 students in the United States say they have been bullied at school. Most bullying happens in middle school and the most common types are verbal and social bullying. Even though bullying commonly happens in childhood, the impact can last well into adulthood. Duke University recently conducted research that shows the rates for agoraphobia and panic disorders greatly increases with bullying. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and low esteem haunt many adults who were once bullied in childhood.

Reducing the stigma

Individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are often deemed “inferior” and are often stigmatized by society however stigma creates bigger issues of inequality, injustice and can push people to the brink of suicide. Mental illness disorders carry a huge amount of stigma in today’s world when anyone can potentially be diagnosed with one of these disorders. Mental health disorders are not a choice but rather occur due to many underlying factors such as genetics, ingrained personality traits and a past history of abuse, trauma, low self-esteem, interpersonal conflicts and stress. Education, awareness and communication in regards to mental illness can help eliminate the stigma associated with these disorders which can allow individuals to feel more comfortable about seeking treatment. Bringing mental health education to public schools may not reduce mental health disorders but hopefully it can increase awareness and allow more access to treatment.