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Should Mental Health Class Be as Standard as Sex-Ed?

More than 90 percent of parents think mental health should be taught in schools, according to a new poll by Parents and the Child Mind Institute.

Mental health class should be as standard as sex-ed Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Parents may disagree about many things, but a recent survey of moms and dads across America conducted by Parents magazine and the Child Mind Institute found that almost all believe that schools have a critical role to play in children's mental health care.

When asked if they believe it is a school's responsibility to raise concerns to parents about their children's mental well-being, 91 percent of parents surveyed said yes. What's more, 92 percent said it is also a school's job to partner with parents in addressing those mental health concerns. An even larger majority—95 percent—said that mental health should be taught in middle and high schools. Approximately 13 percent of children ages 8 to 15 had a diagnosable mental disorder within the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

Mental Health Class Discussion wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

"I think we are coming toward a tipping point when it comes to mental health education and children," says child psychiatrist Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., Parents advisor and founding president of the Child Mind Institute. "Parents are starting to recognize that they not only want mental health education for their children, but they also want better services, because mental health disorders are the great barrier to learning. If you can't focus, sit still, or stop worrying, that can all interfere."

What should a mental health curriculum look like? That topic is up for debate, but Dr. Koplewicz has a clear vision. "The big topics should be anxiety disorders, disruptive disorders, depressive disorders, mood disorders, and autism spectrum disorder. It should be a science conversation. We should talk about these illnesses in the same way we explain what germs are or how the heart works."

He also says that teachers are uniquely qualified to screen children. "A third-grade teacher who has been teaching for ten years knows what 8-year-olds look like. She can give you a real comparison of what is typical and what is atypical," says Dr. Koplewicz. Surveyed parents cited bullying (75 percent), peer pressure (65 percent), and stress (63 percent) as their top three worries when it comes to school and their child's mental, emotional, and social well-being.

Boy Raising Hand In Mental Health Class 2Design/Shutterstock

Survey respondents also expressed a desire for schools to provide mental health services beyond education. The top three they'd like to see more of: greater access to and support of the arts and creative expression (65 percent); psychological services, such as consistent access to a school counselor or psychologist (60 percent); and campaigns and programs that discourage bullying (59 percent).

These results should be a call to action, says Dr. Koplewicz. "If I was the parent of a young child today, I would go to my school and say, 'I would like the science curriculum or the health curriculum to include mental health disorders. These are the most common illnesses a child could have, and they should be taught with the same attention that you are teaching asthma and peanut allergies and diabetes and cancer.' Schools don't have to wait for a textbook. These books are all electronic now, and every good school should already have somebody there, if not a psychologist, then a school nurse or a social worker, who knows enough about mental health and mental health services to get this started."