Michael Taylor: Mental-health literacy is the most important curriculum taught in schools

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      By Michael Taylor

      Nobody thinks it can happen in their family until it does.

      Often, we get so caught up with living that we forget what matters most—people, relationships, family.

      When surveys ask parents what they want most for their kids, the most frequent responses are that they want them to be happy, to develop a sense of character, to be good and moral people.

      Our education system inculcates our children with numeracy and literacy skills, a knowledge of national and global history, and an understanding of the scientific process. It compartmentalizes subjects and prioritizes the traits of discipline, organization, efficiency, and perseverance, often at the expense of intrinsic traits like character, and well-being.

      Students need to develop skills that will enable them to flourish in the workplace, but let us not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

      The grades our children receive and the careers they ultimately pursue matter, but other facets of life count as much, and deserve adequate attention within our schools. Mental-health literacy is one of them.

      Teen suicide continues to be a pressing issue in our communities. Far too many young lives are tragically lost every year in this province because for a time in their lives they cannot see over the mountaintop of hopelessness.

      My uncle was one of the greatest men I have ever known—a first responder who witnessed a lot on the job, and dealt with challenges not uncommon to others. When he recently passed away, no one saw it coming.

      He had a strong exterior and a powerful presence—lighting up every room he entered with his charm and charisma. But like every human being, he was sensitive and was experiencing emotional difficulties that he rarely shared.

      Most male baby boomers were raised in a "never let them see you sweat" sports culture, where emotional vulnerability was considered a weakness. A baby-boomer acquaintance recently recounted a story from his childhood, in which his mother publicly scolded him for crying during a lacrosse game. “Boys don’t cry,” she sternly said.

      Fortunately, these attitudinal undercurrents are starting to change. Mental-health awareness campaigns like “Bell Let’s Talk” are encouraging people to reach out for support during difficult moments in their lives.

      As an educator, I have started to see more students reach out to school counsellors for emotional support, as the stigma around mental health and male gender expectations soften. Compared to previous generations, millennials and high school students talk more openly about mental-health challenges like anxiety and depression.

      Mental-health literacy and well-being concepts were recently included within the new curriculum course documents for physical education and career-life education. Many educators are also providing additional programs within their schools to enhance the resiliency of their students, and to promote awareness and a culture of openness surrounding mental health.

      Nevertheless, more can be done in pushing the cultural conversation forward, and embedding mental-health literacy more deeply within our education system. Just as reducing the speed limit on a highway or adding a flashing pedestrian light on a busy road statistically saves lives, so too does teaching mental-health concepts within our schools. For this reason, it is the most important curriculum we can offer. ​

      Michael Taylor is a Vancouver high school teacher.

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