• Bratton: The Case for Mental Health Education

  • The Case for
    Mental Health Education

    A quick Google search on the pandemic’s impact on mental health in adults and children provides ample information and statistics, and most of it will probably not surprise you! For example, findings from the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health (2021) reported that 37% of teens ages 15–19 said their mental health worsened during the pandemic, and 4 out of 10 teens self-reported experiencing generalized anxiety and feelings of depression since March 2020.

    Additionally, 43% of these teens expressed concerns over mental health challenges due to the pandemic. These mental health impacts were not evenly distributed, however. The Child Mind Institute (2021) added to the research by identifying characteristics that have placed some children at greater risk for mental health challenges during and after the pandemic. Some of these characteristics include having a preexisting mental health disorder, experiencing previous trauma, food and economic insecurities, and those who experienced a disproportionate disruption to their daily schedule. This research also reported that Black and Hispanic teens expressed more concern than their White peers about social anxiety, coping with trauma, mental health challenges, and family struggles with food and finances in light of the pandemic.

    While levels of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress climbed dramatically early in the pandemic, the overall levels of psychological distress have returned to near pre-pandemic levels. This does not diminish the importance of addressing mental health issues, but it does give hope!At the risk of sounding as if this is a doom and gloom situation, research on the mental health of both adults and children during and after the pandemic has revealed some sense of optimism as well! The Child Mind Institute (2021) indicated that 42% of teens feel that the pandemic has increased the number of conversations about mental health, and 67% said that they feel confident about rebounding from the challenges brought on by the pandemic. This is similar to the findings of resilience in adults. Aknin et al. (2021) found that while levels of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress climbed dramatically early in the pandemic, the overall levels of psychological distress have returned to near pre-pandemic levels. This does not diminish the importance of addressing mental health issues, but it does give hope! After all, as God promised in Isaiah 41:10 (NIV), “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” There has been a lot of cause for fear, worry, and anxiety over the past two years, but we can share the message that God is with us as we discuss mental health and work to address the current challenges.

    Dr. Ross Greene has coined the phrase, “Kids do well when they can.” Notice that he does not say, “Kids do well when they want to.” This is an important distinction when discussing mental health and social-emotional skills. If we work under the assumption that our youth are choosing not to do well, we are missing the opportunity to identify important skills they are missing and skills they need to succeed as individuals who are physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy. Playing the blame game of why children may be missing these important skills (e.g., if only their parents taught them respect and were consistent at home) is also not productive or helpful to our students. Going forward, let’s use the lens of “Kids do well when they can” to provide effective instruction that promotes physical, mental, and spiritual health.

    The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” This is more than the absence of a mental health disorder; it includes having the skills to deal with the challenges life throws at us. Note that mental health is something that students can improve, much like being active and lifting weights improves one’s physical health! This is where we in education can inform our students about mental health and important social-emotional skills along with addressing challenges we see with individual students. The best part of this is that we have the luxury of doing this in a way that points back to God’s Word!

    Second Timothy 1:17 says, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline” (NIV). Also, look at the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22–23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Compare the ideas in these verses to the five core competencies of social-emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. To be clear, when we address these competencies in schools, we help students acquire and apply needed skills so that they can identify and manage their own emotions, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions. These are all things that God wants for us! He desires for us to have these skills so that we can model His love and share the message of salvation. Teaching students these skills helps them grow physically, mentally, and spiritually when we connect these skills to Scripture.

    Students who receive systematic, universal instruction in the components of social-emotional learning increase their academic achievement, show improved classroom behavior, and demonstrate increased ability to manage stress and depression. They also have better attitudes about themselves, others, and school.Incorporating mental health education and social-emotional learning for all students has never been more important. Mental health challenges have a significant impact on academic performance, social relationships, and physical health. Children who have mental health challenges are at a greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer as they grow into adults, and they are more likely to be involved in criminal justice cases. Students who receive systematic, universal instruction in the components of social-emotional learning increase their academic achievement, show improved classroom behavior, and demonstrate increased ability to manage stress and depression. They also have better attitudes about themselves, others, and school. In short, there is no health without mental health. We need to ensure that our students are mentally well so that they can also be physically and spiritually well.

    So, what can we do in our Christian schools? First, we need to increase awareness by beginning mental health instruction early in a child’s education. This includes teaching students what mental health means, that it is part of their overall health and well-being, and that it can be improved! Keep the focus on a strength-based and scripturally based mental health approach. Strength-based mental health does not mean a focus on what is wrong with someone; it focuses on what is right with someone and how God gave us each unique strengths. We want students to know that God desires for us to have a healthy mind, body, and spirit, and He will help us achieve this. This goal of providing mental health education to students also helps teachers, administrators, parents, and others in the school community recognize mental health-related difficulties and provide appropriate levels of support.

    When you attend the LEA Convocation in Milwaukee, look for the sectional titled “Optimal Mental Health Lessons” presented by Drs. Belinda Karge, Jeremiah Stokes, and Kara Bratton to hear more and for a sneak peak at a curriculum they are developing to teach students about mental health from a strength-based, Christian perspective. Remember that students do well when they can, and we can provide them with tools to improve their mental health and develop resilience. Research from the pandemic is showing us signs of this resilience in students and adults as a light at the end of the tunnel. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” 2 Corinthians 4:8–9 NIV We know that this resilience comes from God, and this is great news that we can share!

    Mental health challenges left untreated or assumptions made about the cause (children do well when they can vs. when they want to), often lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms that have a negative impact on the child. Providing all students with mental health education and strategies will give us many of the tools and strategies needed to cope with presented challenges. Adults and others in the schools can also identify additional skills the child may be lacking and seek further support for the child in these areas as needed.

    Having tools and early intervention in place for all students make a huge difference! It is often the case that small changes in behavior and an individual’s thinking occur before a major mental health challenge presents itself. When early signs such as mood changes, nervousness, withdrawal, and decreased academic performance, to name a few, are noticed and addressed, the severity of a mental health challenge can be reduced or even prevented in some cases. This is another reason why education for all students, teachers, administrators, parents, and others in the school community is so critical! This education should also include information on how and where to access help, especially regarding issues of suicide and self-harm. By educating those in our school communities throughout a child’s time with us, we also help to eliminate the stigmas associated with mental health. Individuals experiencing mental health challenges are too often defined by their disability, and they experience blame, shame, hopelessness, and distress. Through education, we can normalize conversations about mental health and provide students with tools needs to talk about and improve their mental health and social-emotional skills.

    • Be sure to read “Making Sense of Sensory Processing”—also in this issue of Shaping the Future.
    • What opposition do you anticipate to providing a mental health component to your school’s program?
    • What surprised you most from the information in this article?

    In our settings, we have the joy of being able to incorporate God’s Word and our Christian faith into important conversations surrounding mental health and social-emotional learning.Most importantly, connect learning in this area back to faith in Christ and God’s promises to always be with us. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6–7 NIV This message is missing from many commercial programs that address mental health and social-emotional learning. In our settings, we have the joy of being able to incorporate God’s Word and our Christian faith into important conversations surrounding mental health and social-emotional learning.

    Dr. Kara Bratton is special education director at Lutheran Special Education Ministries and adjunct professor at Concordia University Irvine.

    References:

    Aknin, L., Zaki, J., & Dunn, E. (2021). The pandemic did not affect mental health the way you think. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/07/covid-19-did-not-affect-mental-health-way-you-think/619354/

    Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health. (2021). A return to “normal”: Assessing mental health concerns among U.S. teens. https://www.morganstanley.com/assets/pdfs/reemergence-program-teen-survey-factsheet.pdf

    Osgood, K., Sheldon-Dean, H., & Kimball, H. (2021). 2021 Children’s Mental Health Report: What we know about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on children’s mental
    health –– and what we don’t know. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/awareness-campaigns/childrens-mental-health-report/2021-childrens-mental-health-report/

    Photos © iStock/Weekend Images, Chris Schmidt

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