Every week I read new studies, reports or articles letting us know what's wrong with young people today. They're stressed out more than ever. They're being bullied. They're killing themselves. They're not sleeping. They're abusing prescription medications. They're overweight. They're depressed. The list goes on and on. In some ways it's like society is normalizing these problems for young people instead of giving them skills to deal with what's happening. They hear that there are problems, but where are the solutions?
In response to these studies, an endless amount of mental health, mental illness and suicide awareness campaigns address these problems. Grassroots organizations use PSAs, websites, and marketing materials to highlight helpful information to reach affected populations with messaging that students should seek help and end stigma. There are more young mental health advocates today than ever before. Students are standing up and giving a voice to these issues to empower others to come forward.
Moving Beyond Mental Health Awareness
We definitely need to continue the mental health awareness efforts that are being done by amazing organizations. We also need to go further. Most organizations and campuses have been focused on training faculty, parents and students on what to do when someone has a mental health challenge, but typically the only thing we tell someone who is experiencing a problem is to seek help.
In some ways this is like telling everyone what to do when someone has a heart condition without giving the person with the condition any idea of what they can do for themselves. Mental health has to be the only public health issue where we attempt to prepare everyone for a crisis and don't give the individuals who are experiencing the problems the tools they need to address their mental health.
This approach creates numerous problems. There aren't a lot of places for students to receive mental health care and a large amount of people can't afford it. The lucky ones who have access to mental health treatment have to start developing coping skills for the first time in therapy, when they could be learning coping skills from a younger age. The earlier a person identifies a mental health disorder and accepts it the better chance they have to manage the issue. Unfortunately, most people are being told they should seek help only after something significant has changed in their lives instead of proactive education from a young age.
Universities Addressing Mental Health
Fortunately, some colleges are getting the message that just telling students to seek help isn't enough. UCLA recently launched Live Well, a Healthy Campus Initiative to make UCLA the healthiest campus in America. They focus on all aspects of wellness to balance students' lives. The University of Alaska at Anchorage and Georgetown University have started programs to help students get more sleep. The University of Michigan Depression Center offers outreach and education to students and student athletes.
We need to start teaching mental health in schools from kindergarten through college in the same way we teach physical health. From age 5, students learn about what they should eat, how much they should exercise, the kinds of diseases/problems that can occur and how they can become stronger. We can easily do the same with mental health. We can teach students about the brain, what affects their moods, how to cope with difficult situations, the symptoms of mental health disorders, how to recognize warning signs and how to manage their mental health.
There are effective mindfulness school programs like the RULER approach and Mind Up that are teaching students K-8 about their emotions. Students need mental health education to expand to high school and college. Good mental health has to start before you get to a college campus. We need to do more to normalize mental health instead of focusing solely on all of the problems students have.