Mental Health Awareness

May is Mental Health Awareness month.  As I was writing this, the following article literally popped into my email:

It’s a good read.  But here is why I think it is important – 

Two weeks ago a 7th grade boy brought a gun to school and shot himself in the bathroom during the school day. That was the same week an 8th grade boy murdered and assaulted a 10 year old girl. 

The murder and assault happened a mile away from my office.  The suicide was at a school I led for four years.  Until now, I’d subconsciously misled myself to believe that events like this would never happen in my school or community. I can’t think of a more worthwhile cause for reflection. 

I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of the principal, and indeed all school staff when these incidents occurred. What would I have done? Would I have had the strength to manage the crisis despite personally being shaken at the same time?  

The murder happened out of school.  But nonetheless, school staff had to sort out how to support one another and students who likely had some connection with the victim and the alleged perpetrator. 

The suicide in school presents another host of issues. I can hardly imagine the immediate trauma that occurred as the protective instincts of school staff intersected with everyone’s involuntary fight or flight response.  The shock and fear must have been paralyzing. Even hundreds of miles and nearly ten years away, I can’t stop thinking about the boy’s mom, who was very active in our school community.  Or the grandfather who I had breakfast with around the time the boy was born.

For anyone who has doubted there’s a youth mental health crisis, these latest two incidents should convince them otherwise.  We probably have a gun issue too, but as in all the other incidents involving firearms, it takes a person to decide to use it.

I’m not writing this to be morbid. But it does seem that we–as a society–need to do a better job identifying the signs of mental health.  How many young people are out there thinking about hurting themselves or others?  

There are tons of early warning signs and ways to identify students who are at risk.  But let’s do the math. If every classroom teacher were trained in ways to identify and respond to students in crisis, and if there’s generally a 20:1 student to teacher ratio, it’s still nearly an impossible task.

What if, instead, we deliberately embedded social-emotional learning, mindfulness, reflection into the school curriculum at every level?  What if we taught students how to share their feelings?  How many adults would be healthier and happier if, at an early age, we learned that it’s normal to have positive and negative thoughts? And what if, rather than being afraid to talk about our mental health,  we learned coping skills?

This can all start in school, at the early grades. It doesn’t have to be burdensome or seen as another initiative.  But in my opinion, it has to start by all of us openly talking.  Once everyone sees the benefits, I believe we will want it for one another–especially our young people.

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