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Mental Health Awareness Month

May 14, 2019
By Holly Rothrock

Written by Holly Rothrock, Counselor at The Siena School

Mental Health America (MHA) was founded in 1909 by Clifford Beers, who suffered from a mental illness and was subjected to much abuse as he sought treatment. As a result, he helped found MHA to bring awareness of the need for more humane and effective mental health treatment. In 1949, MHA established the month of May as Mental Health Month to destigmatize mental illness and promote treatment options. 

A lot has changed in our culture's perception of mental health since the inception of Mental Health Month, 70 years ago. In the early part of the 20th century, mental health was often a taboo subject and considered a private family matter. Individuals suffering from mental health issues were often institutionalized and suffered discrimination and abuse. Throughout the years MHA and other organizations have fought for comprehensive prevention and treatment. Thankfully through education, the stigma that was once associated with having a mental illness is diminishing but there does remain many misconceptions which is why continuing education programs for the public are imperative.  

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in a given year, approximately 46 million Americans are affected by mental illness and one in five youth experience a mental health disorder. In fact, half of the individuals living with mental illness experienced the onset of their illness by the age of 14. Educators have long known that a students' mental health impacts learning.  As of 2018 only two states, New York and Virginia, mandate that mental health is taught in schools.  The expectation is that by educating youth, students will be better able to recognize the signs of mental illness in their peers and in themselves and reach out for help. Many organizations are pushing for other states to mandate mental health in health curricula. 

At The Siena School, we believe strongly that the health curriculum should be comprehensive and include physical and mental health lessons. Starting in elementary school, we introduce mindfulness as a healthy coping strategy. Recently, elementary students focused on a lesson that incorporated listening skills and mindfulness. Using a singing bowl, the students were instructed to listen until they no longer heard the vibrational sounds, they were then challenged to listen for sounds outside of the room. We then make the connection between this activity and active listening. We feel students respond best by both practicing various mindfulness activities and understanding the biology behind why it works; we incorporate lessons about how mindfulness allows for different regions of our brain to communicate with each other.  

In middle school, we begin our discussion on stress and the science behind stress. We want students to recognize that some stress is needed for motivation and can be a healthy part of human functioning. Throughout middle school, we are brainstorming healthy coping strategies and specifically which individual strategies work for each student. In one lesson, we explore our individual strengths. We talk about personal challenges, or as students labeled it, "turbulence", and explore which of these identified strengths will help us cope during this "turbulence". 

For our high school students, The Siena School hosts health workshops. We have had outside speakers come in to discuss personal experiences with mental illness.  An important part of the curriculum is talking about the signs of common mental health disorders as well as review the myriad of treatment options. These workshops are designed to show students that treatment is available and it works.  We also focus attention on the benefits of exercise, sleep, nutrition, and social support to our mental wellness.

Family communication is an important component of our mental health education.  We have hosted a respected psychologist to speak with our families to answer questions about the difference between developmental changes and when to seek outside guidance. The Siena School shares relevant studies and resources in newsletters and letters to parents.

Our mental health is integral to being able to function and learn.  Taking a holistic approach to our health is necessary. The more we bring awareness to mental health, the better-equipped students and families will be to taking charge of their mental wellness.

Below are some other resources that may be helpful for parents or educators when learning about or discussing mental health.

Child Mind Institute: The Child Mind Institute is a great resource that explores both mental health and learning differences. It has a symptom checker that provides access to relevant resources based on a questionnaire. 

National Alliance on Mental Illness: This NAMI page offers tips on how to help your child if they have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

National Institute of Mental Health: This NIMH page lists behaviors that might warrant a mental health assessment as well as links to find treatment providers in specific areas. 

Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine:  Lists a variety of online resources for specific mental health disorders and concerns. They also link to treatment service locator toward the bottom of the page.

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