Throughout the decades, school health education programs have grown and
expanded to encompass the many issues facing American children: anti-smoking
initiatives, drug and alcohol prevention, sex education, nutrition and
obesity. Now, with the intensifying pressures and stress children often
must cope with, many parents would like to see mental health added to
that list of health education subjects.
"Students today feel like they have the weight of the world on their
shoulders--a recent Stress in America survey reported that teens were
more stressed than adults," says
Brenda Manfredi, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at
St. Joseph Health Medical Group. "In addition to juggling obligations at school, home and, for older
teens, work, there is the additional pressure of navigating a social life
not just on campus but on the Internet via social media. Anxiety, depression,
cyberbullying--these are all very real concerns for kids today."
And many parents recognize this. In the University of Michigan C.S. Mott
Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, two-thirds
of respondents--parents of middle and high school students--said school
health education curriculum should address mental health issues. However,
only one-third of parents said their children actually learned about mental
health in school. This corresponds with an earlier Mott Poll about parents'
top 10 child health concerns, which included bullying, stress, suicide
and depression. Other concerns on the list can also affect children's
mental health, such as school violence or abuse and neglect.
"Addressing these subjects may help students grappling with problems
by giving them information on how to cope and a venue to discuss their
concerns," Dr. Manfredi says. "By bringing these issues out
in the open, it may help kids realize they aren't alone in their anxiety
or stress, that there are peers out there who feel the same way and that
ways to get help." Students also benefit academically, as research states that mental
health initiatives can improve attendance and academic performance. And
more engaged students make for a stronger campus community."
Mental health education is a natural fit for an overarching health education
program, Dr. Manfredi adds. "There is research that found teens who
suffered from depression were more likely to smoke, drink alcohol or take
drugs, and those subjects are all mainstays of health education programs.
They are all integrated, and if mental health isn't covered in schools
there's an important piece missing from the overall health curriculum."
The health education poll also found overwhelming support for teaching
students first aid and emergency life-saving techniques such as CPR; there
was also more limited support for showing kids how to navigate the health
care system. "Teaching kids about health encompasses a vast number
of issues, and that it's important to give students the tools to achieve
lifelong wellness--mentally, physically and emotionally," Dr. Manfredi says.
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