Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
In 2017, suicide claimed the lives of 5,016 males and 1,225 females between the ages of 15 and 24 domestically. Yet in the United States, only a handful of high schools currently require mental health training for employees. At the same time, it is mandatory for school faculty to complete basic C.P.R., A.E.D., and First Aid training in 18 states. Teachers spend hours training to protect their students in the rare event that a life-threatening accident takes place at school, but they lack preparation for the common incidence of mental health struggles and suicide risk plaguing American youth.
Of course First Aid training is important. Schools require such training in order to create a safe environment for students, protecting them from a health crisis. But illness can come in many different forms.
So why do we value physical health over mental health?
Here’s a thought. Physical illness can be seen; therefore, it is easier to treat. There is only one way to treat a papercut: with a bandaid. On the other hand, mental illness can be difficult to recognize. It is also experienced differently by different people. There is no one way to treat depression, and not all people present symptoms the same way. Plus, treatment requires much more effort over a longer period of time. You can’t put a bandaid on depression.
“Even though we may not be able to see and touch mental illness the same way we can physical illness, we know it’s not only there — it’s reaching crisis levels, and we need to change how we look for it and treat it on a systemic level immediately,” says says Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Co-Founder and Chief Research Officer of Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation. “What’s striking to me is that half of all symptoms of mental illness present before age 14, yet only a fraction are caught, diagnosed, and treated that early,” Chaudhary adds. “We need to do better.”
Unfortunately, to address the more long-term effects and symptoms of mental illness, schools need specialized counselors and staff. The reality is that few schools can afford, or find the time to seek funds for, this kind of hiring and training. For instance, Berkeley High School has an enrollment of about 3,100 students. Its faculty and staff include three intervention counselors and five additional counselors. That totals eight counselors for a campus of over 3,000 teenagers, a ratio of approximately 1:400. While fixing the counselor-to-student ratio would help, an easier and more cost-effective solution would simply be to provide all faculty with basic mental health and first aid training. In fact, students would probably feel more comfortable talking to teachers with established connections over seeing someone like a counselor who might feel like an absolute stranger.
Another reason that it makes sense to train school faculty is the stigma attached to mental illness. A student dealing with anxiety might not want strangers to know and might not feel like there are available resources. Yes, there are school counselors, but often the connections between students and counselors are weak, and at a majority of public high schools, the ratio of students to counselors means that there is no true personal connection.
It’s this insidious nature of mental health struggles — and the invisible suffering — that makes training all the more urgent. It is critical that every state put energy and funding behind mental health training, especially for kids in the highest risk demographics.
One online program already offers a solution to this crisis. Mental Health First Aid (M.H.F.A.) is an online resource dedicated to providing effective and efficient training to a wide audience. But we need a national value shift in order to have any hope of widespread implementation: mental health must become a top priority.
According to the Red Cross, it only takes three hours to receive C.P.R., A.E.D., and First Aid certification. Why not allow the same amount of time to train all faculty to recognize signs of mental illness so that they can also offer support and intervention? Through the Mental Health First Aid program, teachers can receive their full training online in the course of one day. To put this number in perspective, plenty of Californians don’t think twice about spending eight hours in an online traffic school course to clear their driving records. And during Shelter-in-Place, online learning has become second nature and many schools have shifted their schedules to provide more free time for students and teachers.
Mental health training equips teachers to recognize the signs of mental illness so that they can be proactive. It can be difficult to acknowledge the urgency of addressing mental health, as it is an invisible illness, but that makes learning the signs even more critical. With cardiac arrest, it’s possible to see that someone isn’t breathing. But with anxiety, depression and other hidden ailments, the victims are suffering in silence.
While this reality is harsh, it is not unchangeable. With the resources provided by Mental Health First Aid, youth will be able to receive help from trusted adults in high school, shifting the wellness agenda from treatment to prevention, paving the way for long-term success.
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