Editor’s note: This article discusses mental illness and suicide. If you’re struggling, please reach out to one of the supports listed at the bottom of this article.
Dear Betsy DeVos,
My name is Sally and I am a rising high school senior in Boston. I’m finishing up my time in high school and I’m so relieved to move on. High school is a stressful time for many students, including myself. I felt the constant pressure to get good grades and keep up a high GPA. Not only is the academic side of things hard, but with the process of trying to discover themselves, I found that I began to feel nervous way too often and I worried about whether or not other people liked me. Due to these struggles that I and so many other high school students face, high schools should prioritize teaching mental health in health classes so that teens will be able to understand mental health illnesses in an accurate way without stigma.
Mental health can be a popular topic amongst teens, but learning wrong information can lead to major consequences. For example, the popular Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why follows the story of a teenage girl who committed suicide and leaves behind tapes for the people who have wronged her or were part of the reason why she killed herself. This series came out when I was in 8th grade, only 13 years old, and I saw most of my peers were watching it. 13 Reasons Why has received tons of criticism about how it did not portray mental illness correctly and how even after watching the show, it leaves the audience with no clue on how they would actually prevent a suicide from happening. With a popular but inaccurate representation of mental illness, teens can start to get the wrong idea on what mental illness really is and how to care for themselves and others. According to Psychology Today, “It’s possible 13 Reasons Why is contributing to new ways for teens to think about suicide — and not in a prevention-minded way.” The place where teens learn about mental health should not be from a television show on Netflix, but rather, the place where they go to every weekday to learn many other things. The school environment is where the conversation on mental health should start.
Mental health illnesses affect many high schoolers. According to Brain Forest Centers, “One in five youth live with a mental health condition including major depression, but less than half of these individuals receive needed services. Undiagnosed, untreated or inadequately treated mental health conditions can affect a student’s ability to learn, grow and develop.” A student should not have to deal with a mental health condition on their own. All students should know how to seek help for their mental health condition. With the lack of mental health education in schools, students are left in a situation where they can feel lost. If schools do not recognize mental health conditions in a student or help the student, it will cause severe consequences to the student in the school environment. Dealing with mental health conditions can cause difficulty in the school environment, which is why mental health should not be an issue only for the student, but for teachers and administration as well since a vital aspect of their job is to keep students safe and well.
With the second leading cause of death in the U.S. for teens being suicide, there needs to be more done to support teen youth. Currently, there are only two states in the U.S. that require mental health education get taught in school, New York and Virginia. With only two states out of the 50 making the necessary changes to the high school health curriculum while suicide is at an all time high for teens and young adults, there is clearly not enough being done to help youth fight the battle. Health educators need proper training and support to best serve young adults.
From my experience with health class, I remember learning a lot about physical health. We learned about alcohol and sex-ed but I don’t recall learning that much about mental illnesses or even mental health in general. When we have teachers teach mental health, it needs to be holistic and accurate. Nothing is going to change if mental health only gets brought up one time and the conversation is over. In order to properly integrate mental health education into the current high school health curriculum, health teachers need to be required to learn how to teach mental health education to high schoolers.
If health teachers do not get the proper training to teach about mental health, it can possibly be more harmful with a spread of misinformation. It would be no better than teens finding random information from television shows or while scrolling through Instagram pages. When becoming a health teacher, they are taught on how to teach high school students about physical health, but with the staggering statistics of today’s youth regarding mental health, being able to teach about mental health and physical health should be held at the same standard when getting certified as a high school health teacher.
As the United States Secretary of Education, I strongly urge you to take action in reevaluating our country’s current health classes. Today’s youth are suffering more than ever before in a fight with mental health. As a way to make the school environment a safe and helpful place for students struggling with mental health, all high school health teachers should be required to take classes on how to teach mental health education so that they can properly integrate it into the current health curriculum in an accurate way to help students understand what mental health is and how to care for themselves and others.
If you are interested in mental health treatment, you can research options and apply for financial support using the To Write Love on Her Arms Find Help Tool.
If you are in crisis, you can reach the Samaritan’s Hotline by phone call or text message at 877.870.4673 or chat online at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.