By Lindsay Wu
Teens stand in a line, poised and ready to run. Their partners sit cross-legged on the grass nearby with pencils and marking sheets in hand, ready to jot down the runners' times the next six times they pass them.
This is the third time this school year the students will be participating in this activity—a timed six laps around the running track—as part of their fitness and physical-health evaluation.
Physical education (PE) is a mandatory course that all students in British Columbia need to take from grades 8 to 10, as per requirement by the provincial government. Physical-health maintenance and the ability to develop a healthy-living plan are components of the "prescribed learning outcomes" in B.C.’s "graduation transitions" requirements that students need to fulfill in order to graduate high school.
Specific disorders ignored
Although B.C.’s high-school system does a fair job in highlighting and enforcing the importance of physical health for students, it lacks the same dedication to mental health.
Listed under “personal health” in the graduation transitions is the emphasis for students to be able to understand the framework of a healthy lifestyle, including making smart choices in exercise and nutrition. Almost as though an afterthought, the learning outcomes include “emotional-health management” with a note specifying stress management. Components of the curriculum that pertain to health see an equally brief attention to mental health. When included, the main—if not only—focus, again, centres on stress.
Stress and its effects, of course, are important, and understanding how to manage stress is critical in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But where are its equally important counterparts? Where is education on mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders? Where do students learn about suicide—the second-leading cause of death among youth between the ages of 15 and 24?
High-schoolers spend a significant portion of the school year memorizing the parts of a cell and performing Romeo and Juliet’s ill-fated deaths. Why are students not required to spend an equal amount of time understanding mental illnesses and enacting what-to-do scenarios if a friend confides to having suicidal thoughts?
Mental illness often starts in teen years
Although anyone at any time can develop a mental disorder, its onset is often in adolescence and it likely increases in severity if not treated. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 84,000 B.C. youth have a diagnosable mental disorder. However, only one-third of them are receiving mental-health services, which means that 58,000 B.C. youth do not receive the treatment they need. This figure is itself staggering, but when we look beyond B.C.’s borders to the 1.2 million youth in Canada who are affected by a mental illness, the seriousness of the issue become even more inconceivable.
Three-and-a-half percent of youth struggle with depression. For purpose of visualization, this means that in every standard class of 30 students, there is one student struggling with a significantly depressed psychological state; this can lead to apathy toward previously enjoyed experiences, sadness, and hopelessness.
Anxiety disorders affect six percent of children and youth. This condition causes extreme fears or extensive worry to the point where it interferes with the individual’s ability to function normally in daily life.
Four percent of youth suffer from an eating disorder; one percent of youth suffer from anorexia nervosa, and three percent suffer from bulimia nervosa. Eating disorders and their risks increase in severity with age and have devastating—at times irreversible—effects on the mind and body, in some cases even leading to death.
School plays huge role in mental development
In the most severe of cases, mental disorders may lead to suicide; 12 percent of youth have seriously considered suicide. This would equate to three to four students in a classroom of 30. Five percent—one student in the classroom—would have attempted it.
Promoting mental health among youth is clearly an issue that requires attention. Given that children and teenagers spend 30 hours each week in school during the years where their bodies and minds go through immense change and growth, school plays a colossal role in their physical, mental, emotional, and social development.
It is, therefore, crucial that mental health is integrated and highlighted in the high-school education system.
Vancouver, the city in which I went to elementary and high school as well as the place I call home, held a byelection on October 14 where residents voted for nine school board trustees who will have responsibility for setting education policies and steering the direction of education in Vancouver. One of the elected trustees, Lisa Dominato, has a background in mental health and, promisingly, states that “we need a robust mental health and wellness strategy for all VSB students and staff.”
My hope is that the new school board trustees will acknowledge the important of mental-health education and take timely action to revise the high-school curriculum accordingly. Vancouver can and should be the pioneer and role model for B.C.—and perhaps even Canada—in bringing mental-health topics to the forefront of high-school health education.
Mental-health courses can easily be integrated
A unit dedicated to mental-health promotion and mental-illnesses prevention can seamlessly be integrated into health-related courses such as PE or Planning 10. Even better, there should be a unit on mental health in science courses. We need to emphasize that mental illnesses are as real, significant, and devastating as the physical illnesses students learn about in biology class.
Students need more exposure to the topic of mental illness in order to understand what it is and how to handle it in a healthy manner—whether if it affects them directly or indirectly through a struggling classmate. Integrating mental-health topics in high schools will help defeat stigma surrounding mental illness and normalize the fact that it is not a character flaw or something to be ashamed of.
It will allow students to feel more comfortable about seeking help if they are affected by mental challenges and be more equipped in helping a classmate who is affected by it.
It will change the way youth think about mental illness, which, subsequently, will change the way the future thinks about mental illness.
Starting with our children and youth will increase the priority of mental-health services and attention, not only in the field of education but ultimately in society as well.