Mandating mental health education in schools is on my mind these days.
Many people are applauding the fact that NY and VA are going to be requiring mental health education for high schoolers. Before you fist-pump and think, "Problem solved!" on school shootings and the alarming increase of teen suicide, ponder these three scenarios:
If the lettuce in your garden is not growing, do you look the lettuce in the eye and tell it to reach out for help?
If your dog is acting lethargic, do you wag your finger at your dog and tell it to re-read it's training manual?
If the person in the wheelchair is unable to enter the building because there is no ramp, do you stop and tell them to push harder?
What's The Problem?
My concern with mandating mental health education in public schools is that the going conversation is that mental illness is a biological/genetic, brain-based disease and places the origin squarely inside the person, on their individual brain. It's bad science and not true.
You can't make a high schooler aware of the mechanics of depression in the brain then give them a number to call if they feel suicidal and expect this information to solve the problem.
Many people simply do not know enough to challenge this medical-model perspective. It is a public perspective that is out-of-sync with what the scientific community knows to be true today.
The Lettuce, The Dog, And The Wheelchair.
Back to the lettuce, the dog, and the person in the wheelchair. The first thing we should instinctively do in in those scenarios is ask, "What's wrong with the surrounding environment to make things difficult for lettuce, dog, and person?" And then put all of our energy into improving the messed up environment.
When we see children doing drugs, getting into fights, harming themselves, and harming others we put those kids in jail in the most extreme cases. We think there must be something wrong with these kids and they need to be taught a lesson.
What research tells us is that these children are experiencing trauma, often repeat trauma, in their homes: abuse, drug-addicted parents, witnessing violence, neglect, incarcerated family members... and that these significant trauma's hugely increase their risk of developing serious health issues in adolescence and well into adulthood. If we address the cause and effect of the trauma, we can help the child.
In less extreme cases, we tell kids "If you feel suicidal, reach out for help." And then we don't train people on how to support a suicidal person, and they end up being hospitalized.
This tells kids: if you're suicidal, we'll hospitalize you. A psychiatric inpatient hospital stay is not a trip to Disney World. The result of most inpatient psychiatric hospital stays equals going in for 3-7 days to "stabilize" (i.e. be gifted a cocktail of medications that suppress your symptoms) and get discharged with a note recommending you find a counselor.
Handing these children over to mental health experts at the psych hospital may sometimes be part of what is necessary to keep someone alive, but it is not the answer, not the beginning of the solution.
What Is the Solution?
In my opinion, the solution is to change the environment.
We should fund schools to become trauma-informed environments that deeply, intelligently train and equip administrators, teachers, and professionals to become aware of and change their OWN responses to the students, and to shape the school environment and policies in order to create a place where they can come to daily and be understood and seen and supported.
People need to live this approach in order to fully understand and implement it. And in order to live it, we need to be surrounded by others doing the same and an environment that supports us all as a community to adopt these changes.
Tall order, but I believe 110% it is the most effective solution we can put our energy towards if we want to address this complex issue. It is where we should begin.
The person is not the broken thing needing to be fixed.
One School That Is Implementing The Solution
A school in Washington state was the subject of the documentary Paper Tigers. From the film website:
More than two decades ago, two respected researchers, clinical physician Dr. Vincent Felitti and CDC epidemiologist Robert Anda, published the game-changing Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. It revealed a troubling but irrefutable phenomenon: the more traumatic experiences the respondents had as children (such as physical and emotional abuse and neglect), the more likely they were to develop health problems later in life—problems such as cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
To complicate matters, there was also a troubling correlation between adverse childhood experiences and prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse, unprotected sex, and poor diet. Combined, the results of the study painted a staggering portrait of the price our children are paying for growing up in unsafe environments, all the while adding fuel to the fire of some of society’s greatest challenges.
However, this very same study contains the seed of hope: all of the above-mentioned risk factors—behavioral as well as physiological—can be offset by the presence of one dependable and caring adult.
It doesn’t need to be the mother or the father.
It doesn’t even need to be a close or distant relative.
More often than not, that stable, caring adult is a teacher.
The same filmmakers also created Resilience, a film about the effects of toxic stress.
This Doesn't Stop With Kids and Schools
All of the ideas and concepts presented in the two above documentaries can be applied to adult lives as well. The environment around us can either promote illness or health. When, as an adult, someone faces major depression or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder equal attention should be spent improving the environment around the person as is spent pursuing various treatments. Equal (if not more) attention should be paid to cultivating their resilience and strengths as is paid to discussing and focusing on their imbalances.
We look for this understanding in the programs we refer our clients to. We respect each family's perspective and wishes for treatment, and we strongly encourage our clients to consider mental illness as having origins in places other than brain biology. At Virgil Stucker and Associates, we fully support holistic and innovative approaches that are trauma-informed and support the whole person from a place of their strengths and abilities. Let's fix the environment before we point the finger at the individual. Rarely, if ever, does someone deserve to be given up on in that way.
Quotes From The Film, Resilience To Give Us All Hope
"If you can get the science into the hands of the general population, they will invent very wise actions."
"A defeatist attitude is completely disconnected from what 21st century science is telling us. And we should be going after that like a bear!" - Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.