April 10, 2015

Mental health in schools   

Come see Hakeem Rahim speak at the 2015 NAMI National Convention during the Opening Plenary on Tuesday, July 7.

On March 5, 2015, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the Change Direction campaign, a new mental health initiative designed to raise mental health awareness.  This builds on President Obama’s call two years ago where he urged educators to help “bring mental illness out of the shadows.”

This national spotlight on mental illness, in conjunction with the tragic incidents of violence at schools, increases the need to clearly communicate to students about mental health. Here are three powerful messages every school needs to share to create an open environment for students to talk about mental health at school:

  • It’s OK to talk about mental illness
  • There is no shame in seeking help
  • There is hope after diagnosis

It’s OK to Talk About Mental Illness

To Demystify Mental Health We Must Define It

There are a lot of myths about mental illness. Due to stigma, or negative attitudes about a group, and lack of understanding of what mental illness is, both students and educators are being left in the dark. This lack of clarity can lead students to feel isolated, misunderstood and even destructive.

In order to say it’s OK to talk about mental illness we must first remind ourselves that mental illness can affect anyone, is not the result of character, personal defects, or poor upbringing and are treatable. When we can accurately point out, name and define mental illness we can have a common vocabulary to talk about it. By defining we demystify.

Showing its OK

Students need to actively see that it is OK to talk about mental health. 1 out of 5 adolescents are diagnosed with a mental illness any given year, but only 20% of those that need treatment will receive it. Moreover, children living in disadvantaged neighborhoods are much more vulnerable to mental health issues and less likely to have access to treatment.

School leadership in general can help students see that communicating their challenges is ok and is one of the ways to take care of yourself. Showing it’s OK can range from setting up lunchtime safe spaces, to running awareness programs, to ensuring safety protocols are in place. Regardless of the measure, students need to feel supported by the entire school community.

There is No Shame In Seeking Help

What does it mean to seek help?

Students are more likely to seek help from their friends than adults, if they seek help at all. When all of the students are aware of mental health resources available to them, they are also better prepared to help a friend or classmate who may confide in them.

High school students are prone to feeling like they can handle it all on their own, or if help is something that they would consider, they will not get it because of negative beliefs or comments by peers. This is one of the many ways we see evidence of stigma in schools.

Schools must explicitly have a “you can come to me” attitude in order to encourage students to seek help. If your school has a school mental health professional, students need to know who they are, likewise, teachers need to know who to refer their students to. Although it can be difficult to discuss issues with students, following proven strategies such listening non-judgmentally normalizing negative emotions and being compassionate, students can have an opportunity to openly seek help.

Showing Models of Mental Health

Students need to see that there is no shame to seek help by making it an ok thing to do.  By showing cultural icons who talk about their challenges and seek help, such as Brandon Marshall, Demi Lovato and Kendrick Lamar, we help young people embrace the idea that it is OK and expected to face mental health challenges.  By also having intentional time for mental health awareness, students will see the value being placed on this topic and the attitudes they have about stigma will be addressed.

There is Hope After Diagnosis

We all know middle school and high school is a time of dramatic change, growth and developmental milestones. This period of change and growth impacts the mental health of young people. In fact, one half of all cases of lifetime mental illness begin by the age of 14. However young people who are diagnosed need to know that with proper care and treatment mental illness are treatable.

Schools are an ideal place to help young people know that they are supported whether or not they are struggling with mental illness. Promoting programs like Michelle Obama’s Change Direction initiative, national programs like NAMI’s Ending the Silence, educational based initiatives like NAMI Queens/Nassau’s Breaking the Silence and Let’s Talk Mental Illness TM, or  local initiatives like First Lady Chirlane McCray of New York City Mental Health Texting Pilot Program,will reinforce for students that mental health is something to speak about and not to be hidden.

Mental health is now coming front and center. Schools can be places where kids can know its OK to talk about what they are going through, seek help if they need it and receive encouragement when they experience mental illness. Through consistently and openly sharing these mental health messages, schools can begin to create a culture of open expression.

Hakeem Rahim, EdM, M.A. graduated from Harvard University and from Teacher’s College, Columbia University, start a consulting firm, and become NAMI Queens/Nassau’s Let’s Talk Mental Illness™ (LTMI) presenter, despite his struggles with bipolar disorder. Hakeem has also testified in front of Congress and featured in USA Today. Find out more about him at hakeemrahim.com.


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