How should schools contribute to solving the mental health crisis?
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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, are the most prevalent disability around the world. Mental health issues can lead to illness, absence from school or work, and many other personal challenges that in turn significantly hurt the economy as a whole. Importantly, scientific advances have found many effective ways to help prevent and reduce the amount of mental health challenges that humans face. One problem is that not every individual or community has access to these solutions when they need them, or even before they need them (for the prevention of mental health issues in the future).
Many experts agree that schools have an important role to play in solving the global mental health crisis, as schools are places where the youth (and adults) of a society come together most days of the week, to learn and grow together. Schools can be places where mental health is strengthened and developed or weakened and eroded. Recognizing this, many schools are now adopting “Social-Emotional Learning” programs to help ensure that all students develop the skills needed to prevent and overcome the mental health challenges students are likely to face as they grow up. The problem here is that even scientists and school leaders still have some disagreements about the best scientific way to help schools solve this crisis. We will outline some of the known challenges, and you can either build on these directions or add your own ideas for how schools should contribute to solving the mental health crisis.
You can look at this challenge from many different perspectives. Below are three broad areas of discussion. These questions are explored further in the linked Google Slide Deck for this YES! Challenge.
Is the structure of schools unhealthy?
Some experts believe that the basic structure of most schools is fundamentally unhealthy for students (and teachers!), that schools reduce the freedom of students and make learning a “chore” or something that is “work” rather than fun and interesting, and that this significantly contributes to the mental health crisis. Other experts disagree around the specifics of how much freedom is good for children and youth of different ages and situations.
Should schools be more systematic in measuring and responding to problems?
Some experts believe that schools can improve how they support the mental health of students and teachers if they get more systematic about measuring and then responding to problems. Meaning schools should have systems like surveys and other ways of knowing if and why mental health issues may be prevalent in a school community, and then be able to respond appropriately. Others feel these systems may be intrusive, coercive, or ineffective.
Is the curriculum (Lehrplan) fragmented in a way that prevents effective learning about mental health?
Finally, in our own work at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, we argue that one systemic challenge schools face in addressing mental health challenges is the way we think about the curriculum itself. We suggest that students themselves should be empowered with opportunities to learn about the science of mental health and human well-being and be able to work to evolve their own school cultures and behaviors in valued directions.
Importantly, none of these perspectives has to be “more right” than the others, they are just starting points for you to think about different problems and solutions. Learn about these expert perspectives, think about your own experiences and school culture, and come up with ideas to help schools systematically help strengthen mental health in society.