The new mental health education mandate doesn’t go far enough

Just recently, New York and Virginia became the first two states to mandate that mental health become incorporated into school curriculums. New York passed a law for educators to teach material on mental health beginning from elementary school continuing on to high school. Virginia’s legislation intertwines mental health education with physical and health education for 9th and 10th graders. While these two states should certainly be commended for recognizing the importance of mental health care and for building a strong foundation to grow upon, the new curriculums don’t go nearly far enough to combat the seriousness of mental illness in America today.

Anyone who can remember D.A.R.E. classes or the anti-drinking and smoking lectures from high school health class can attest to the ineffectiveness of promoting healthy choices once stepping outside of the classroom. Although good-intentioned, the education and tools these classes afforded its students rarely translated into real-world situations. It’s wonderful that students will be getting exposure to the topic and recognizing the importance of mental health care, but schools should go beyond just education.

There should be an increased budget for schools to recruit psychologists and counselors while placing an emphasis on normalizing usage of these services. Students should be encouraged to check in with mental health care professionals at least once a year to talk about any difficulties they are experiencing so they can learn tools on how to cope.

Understandably, students may feel embarrassed to be seen walking into the doors of their school counselor, so measures should be taken to assuage their fears. Although logistically difficult, I give my school credit for moving their mental health counseling services to a building different from the one we attended classes, one where students rarely entered to ensure confidentiality. Ideas like that could help embolden students to seek the care they need.

Additionally, the new booming field of telehealth provides people with a whole new avenue to receive the care they desperately seek while sitting in the comforts of their own home. They’re able to speak to the appropriately licensed health care provider over phone, video call or even text message. I imagine students would feel undeniably more comfortable talking to someone from home rather than doing it in school if offered the choice.

Years ago, I wish my school curriculum educated me on subjects that were more applicable to the real world like taxes, mortgages and retirement plans. But now students in New York and Virginia will be taught something that can potentially save their lives in the future. While I believe the new legislation isn’t as impactful as it could be, there’s no reason why the other 48 states shouldn’t follow suit while going even further.

Whether child or adult, the biggest barrier to mental health care, in my opinion, is the stigma associated with seeing a professional for help. As I’ve stated before, going to a psychiatrist or any other mental health professional for depression is no different from going to your primary care doctor for chest pain. Changing curriculums and introducing legislation are external solutions to an internal problem on how we think about and perceive mental illness. We need to start adapting the way we internally think about and even judge mental health care. Only once we start normalizing mental health care as a collective people in America will we start to see a real change in the prevalence and negative outcomes associated with mental illness.

Brandon Jacobi is a medical student.

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