For those of us who have long argued that our nation’s schools need to prioritize innovative efforts to address mental-health challenges, these are very encouraging times. There is an increasing recognition that the current conditions in schools are insufficient to address the mental-health issues that affect the lives of many students.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one out of every four or five young people under the age of 18 experiences a mental-health disorder—such as anxiety or severe depression—each year. Schools’ increased attention to mental-health education is the result of a greater push to experiment with the traditional learning paradigm and focus on overall student well-being, not just academic learning. School leaders are beginning to explore the linkage between physical health and mental outlook, and are viewing mental health not only as a condition for which schools should provide special assistance, but also one that a school’s curricula and approach to education can help improve.
This change is happening at multiple levels. The U.S. Department of Education’s Healthy Students, Promising Futures initiative compiled research that shows increased physical activity, access to nutritious food, and comprehensive health education improve academic outcomes and reduce tobacco and alcohol use among students. To measure the impact of health education efforts, the CDC developed an analytical tool for schools to compare their programs with the CDC’s characteristics of an effective health curriculum. The assessment system helps schools enhance their education to these standards, including opportunities to address individual attitudes and beliefs, discuss social pressures and influences, and reinforce positive health behaviors.
As a researcher, pediatric nurse practitioner, and psychiatric-mental-health nurse practitioner, I have studied the effects of cognitive-behavior therapy on young people (including as a method to alleviate adolescent depression) over the past two decades. This therapy helps children and teens approach negative situations with positive thinking and actions that can lead to healthier choices, enabling them to deal more successfully with daily challenges. Therapists have been using cognitive-behavior therapy for years to improve mental-health problems, and teachers can easily incorporate its key concepts and skills into school curricula.
School leaders are beginning to explore the linkage between physical health and mental outlook."
To help them do so, I created an intervention program for high schools to help students develop healthy lifestyles—called Creating Opportunities for Personal Empowerment, or COPE. The program, now implemented in schools and primary-care practices in more than 30 states, includes classroom learning to help students develop better cognitive-behavior skills, nutrition, and physical activity. The building of cognitive-behavior skills teaches teens that how they think relates to how they feel and behave. It also incorporates problem-solving methods to manage emotional issues and the development of effective communication skills.
In a 2013 comparative study of COPE conducted with nearly 800 U.S. teens in the Southwest—half of whom took part in the program’s 15 cognitive-behavioral educational and skills-building sessions, the other half in conventional health classes—results showed that students who participated in the program improved their academic competence and performance, reduced their alcohol consumption, and experienced fewer struggles with weight and obesity. Additionally, those who began the program with severe depressive symptoms no longer had them one year after completion. Those in conventional health classes did not show similar progress.
These results are proof that, with the right initiatives, researchers, policymakers, school leaders, and educators can transform schools into centers that encourage and enable better physical- and mental-health outcomes for students, simply by updating their approaches to recognize the health problems that currently exist and implement the evidence-based interventions available to improve them.
One final step schools can take to improve mental-health education is equipping teachers with the knowledge to implement cognitive-behavioral skills-building, and encouraging them to deliver this content as part of their routine classroom exercises. This is not to imply there won’t be a need for mental-health counselors in schools, but training for teachers will help establish a curriculum that conditions students to focus on their overall mental and physical well-being. These cognitive-behavioral skills can help students strengthen their ability to manage difficult issues as well as their resiliency to deal with common stressors, thereby preventing the development of more-serious mental-health problems.
I believe we are turning an important corner on student health and wellness in the evolution of our education system. Mental-health challenges are found in the classrooms and hallways of every school in the United States. However, schools have for too long failed to talk about mental health until a headline-making tragedy—a death from suicide, a drug overdose, or a shooting—brought it to the forefront of public discussion. But with educators’ concerted efforts to develop mental-health solutions for students that are both innovative and easily teachable, more students will be on track toward productive, fulfilling lives.
A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Turning a Corner on Mental-Health Education