Mandatory Mental Health Courses?
Derek Lopez @standupourkids, did it again. He asked an important question on Twitter that I need more than 240 characters to answer. He asks:
What do you think about requiring mental health courses in schools?
So first the key assumption I'm making here is that he is asking about what I think about requiring students to take a course on mental health in high school. At least that's the lens through which I am going to answer the question.
First, I'd like to say that most times, I have a pretty good handle on my own mental health, and I'm VERY thankful for that! I would say that I'm very introspective and mindful. But there are mental health challenges in my family and I we have had some serious challenges in our lives because of it, so all this to say is that mental health is a very important and deeply personal topic for me.
Now. To answer the question:
I think that requiring students to take another course would be counter productive, even if it is a mental health course designed to teach students about their own challenges and the challenges of others. I think the sentiment is a good, but I don't think it will solve the problem.
Requiring more of our students I think is the real problem for a lot, not all, of the mental health challenges we see in our schools today. Paul Napper and Anthony Rao, in their book The Power of Agency write about this directly and I think it's an insanely important book to read for anyone who has or works with children and teenagers. In their book, they go on to say that these days they are seeing more and more people with a feeling of overwhelm and feelings of anxiety and I think that, as they mention, giving our students more opportunities to develop their sense of agency will reduce A LOT of mental health issues that students are facing today.
We should be providing our students more opportunities to make their own choices and to be more creative. They need more opportunities to think and decide for themselves and to see that they do, in fact, have power over their own lives. Yeah, I know, what does that look like?! Well, it looks like giving our students more choices for the courses that they take. The focus in Ontario is still on Readin', Writin', and 'Rithmetic, and with our current provincial government it's not going to change. That's as political as I want to get with this blog. Students are not encouraged to take arts classes and there is little emphasis on creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. The only problems our students see are problems to which the teachers already know the outcome. Not an authentic experience...if you ask me.
Students should be provided with more opportunities to grow and explore. To develop and exploit their strengths. I'm not saying let them do whatever they want, I'm saying that there isn't one way for a student to demonstrate their learning in a particular area.
Here's an example of why I think it's difficult for teachers to allow their students to be creative more often. This year in my grade ten science class they had to do a project and answer a question: How does lifestyle affect the human systems? One group wrote an original rap song to present their material and one group did a parody of Bohemian Rhapsody and filmed them. I know, as a former songwriter (and lead vocalist/tenor sax player for a ska band, The Rude Dudes) how much knowledge and understanding goes into writing a song. You really need to get smart with the words and the concepts if you want it to be catchy and memorable. I think some teachers might not understand the different types of media being presented to them and rarely take the time to talk to students about what they know to really get a good handle on their true understandings of the concepts. Now, in fairness to those teachers, we don't have a lot of time in class to talk to our students. Our Ministry of Education in Ontario puts A LOT of emphasis on curriculum and content and so it can be very difficult for a teacher to feel like they have to get it all in AND have conversations with students during class time! It's easier to get students to hand in a paper that you can bring home and grade on your own time. Is it what's best for students? I don't think so, but there are some great teachers out there who make it work.
So, I guess, to summarize, if students are given more opportunities to create, and develop their own sense of agency, I believe mental health challenges, as they relate to students in schools, decline because students will know that they can live a life on their own terms. I'm not trying to diminish mental health issues, please remember that I have a long family history of mental health challenges.
The OTHER aspect of mental health challenges that I want to touch on since I'm here at my computer is that there has been a serious decline in physical activity in our schools. As I mentioned earlier, the emphasis in Ontario is still on literacy and numeracy and continues to move away from promoting physical activity and daily movement. The book "Spark" by Dr. John Ratey is a great read if you want to know more about how important physical activity is for brain and academic functioning.
Personally, I can tell you, and my wife will agree, that when I'm not being active on a regular basis, I'm a difficult person to be around. Now, I carry a few extra pounds and would say that I'm built for comfort, not for speed, BUT I can almost feel the positive effects of the hormones flowing through my veins. My mental health is as good as it is because I'm regularly active. It would be even better if I could get my eating habits under control.
I can't say it with enough enthusiasm, but students, children, EVERYONE, needs to #getoutside and #beactive! It doesn't have to be much, but I believe in the deepest parts of me, that fresh air and exercise are SO GOOD for a person's mental health!
So there you go Derek Lopez @standupourkids, required mental health classes should be required phys. ed. classes every year with more emphasis on mental health.