It is not surprising that when schools are looking at mental health programming, they gravitate to suicide prevention. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 11-24. There is no doubt that for those who are regularly around young people, a suicide prevention skill set is as critical as CPR or First Aid. However, here are three good reasons why suicide prevention is not enough.
- One in four children will have experienced a diagnosable mental disorder by the time they are 18. Mental disorders in childhood can negatively impact a child’s normal development and academic success. When mental health programming in schools primarily focuses on preventing a suicidal crisis, it is easy to lose sight of these other, non-suicidal children. 80% of children with diagnosable mental health disorders do not receive help. Yet non-suicidal mental disorders can still impair a child’s life. Untreated mental illnesses affect children’s ability to learn. They increase the likelihood of youngsters engaging in unhealthy behaviors that may carry into adulthood, seriously impairing their lifelong ability to function at their potential.
- General knowledge about mental health and the warning signs of a developing mental health concern promotes early intervention. The earlier a problem is addressed, the easier it is to treat and the less likely it will have a serious outcome, much less a catastrophic one. Further, when children, and those who work with them, understand the connection between physical and mental health, the negative consequences of stigma are reduced or eliminated. Caring for one’s mental health becomes a proactive rather than a reactive behavior, and seeking help is more likely to occur earlier. The Red Flags in Children’s Behavior booklet offers a brief overview of the most common warning signs of childhood mental illnesses and information on getting help.
- As with all health issues, the development and regular practice of healthy habits is the best way to avoid illness. Positive mental health practices, begun when children are very young and then regularly reinforced throughout childhood, can reduce a child’s vulnerability to mental disorders. The Green Book outlines simple, daily practices that build children’s self-confidence, develop resilience, and promote positive social interaction. Many schools, as early as kindergarten, are making it available to parents as a token of their recognition of the relationship between mental health and school success.
When schools commit to making time to foster the mental health of their students, they do everyone a favor. Children become better learners, grades improve, disruptions are reduced, and parent and teacher satisfaction increase. Then schools can do what they do best: educate.