I attended one of New York City’s most specialized public high schools, where the student body was comprised of more than 3,000 incredibly gifted kids. It was a defining experience of my life. I’m grateful for the people I met, the lessons I learned and the person I came out on the other side as, and I wouldn’t trade those four years for anything in the world. But taking the time to truly reflect on what that time was actually like has made me realize that I wasn’t always doing so well. With a crippling caffeine addiction that emerged my sophomore year and anxiety that has followed me to college, the toll those years took on my mental health has become clear. Though for me the strain was a result of academic ambitions, adolescents deal with a variety of different mental health problems, for many different reasons; mental health struggles are more widespread than you might think.
The World Health Organization estimates that one in seven 10 to 19-year-olds deal with mental health conditions while the CDC found a 40% increase in persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness from 2009 to 2019 among U.S. high school students. Such data demonstrates the need for action, but since mental health is tainted with stigma and misconceptions, a double standard toward it has emerged.
Due to a lack of concrete and tangible evidence about mental health due to the fact that poor mental health can sometimes be invisible to those around you, and because there are so many misguided notions about mental health as a whole, people don’t always take the issue seriously. That is why I am a big supporter of a recent New York law that mandates all public schools include mental health education as a core part of their school curriculums. Requiring that mental health be taught alongside physical health marks a huge step forward and should only be the start of further integrating mental health into our health care.
One reason this policy marks a positive change is because it officially recognizes that mental health is an important part of one’s overall health. The original version of this law was created 44 years ago with the intent of teaching students about general health and, since its first implementation, has been revised to include education about public health concerns including alcohol, drug, tobacco abuse and the prevention and detection of certain cancers. Lawmakers changed the policy to include such material because they believed it was important for students’ health and well-being. Therefore, to also include mental health effectively sends the message that mental health is as critical to one’s health and well-being as physical ailments like cancer.
Along the same lines, openly discussing mental health in a school environment works toward reducing the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Not only will it help get rid of common misconceptions surrounding mental health, like the notion that people with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable, but also just talking about mental health further normalizes it and can eradicate the ostracism that many children may feel.
Another reason this policy is a step in the right direction is because it equips adolescents to recognize the signs of mental illness within themselves or those around them, thus increasing the likelihood that they can get the right help for whoever needs it. According to the original NY law, over 90% of youth who commit suicide suffer from depression or other diagnosable and treatable mental illnesses at the time of their deaths. Moreover, it is often the case that mental health conditions begin in childhood as researchers estimate 50% of mental illnesses begin by age 14 and 75% begin by age 24. As such, by teaching kids about mental health, the hope is that they will be able to seek treatment earlier, which could even reduce the number of youth who are affected as adults later in life.
Speaking from personal experience, my knowledge of mental health was quite limited for a long time. “Depressed” was what I would call my friends on days they were sad, and anxiety was what I attributed to people who would have constant panic attacks. Had I properly learned what depression looks like or about the different forms of anxiety, maybe I could have gotten help for myself and those around me earlier.
To conclude, mental health is a critical part of healthcare, and until people are able to grasp that mental struggles are as legitimate as physical ailments, those suffering from mental illness will not receive just treatment — medically or socially. Eventually, I hope that doctors’ offices are able to upgrade from the depression screening questionnaire they have patients take during their physical check-ups to proper mental health evaluations. But change, especially changing mindsets, doesn’t happen overnight. In this fight to make mental and physical health equal, the first step is teaching people what mental health truly is.
Palak Srivastava is an Opinion Columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org