Schools should prioritize students’ mental health

A drawing of a person reading a book and holding their head in frustration.
Crystal Zhong/File

We didn’t talk about mental health when I was in high school. A visit to the counselor centered on disciplinary issues rather than mental health concerns. To the school’s credit, there were some handouts on how best to address the stress of another AP exam and some guidance on how to overcome the anxiety associated with making new friends. But these 8 x 11 documents were far from sufficient for addressing problems that impact you 24/7.

Then I headed to college and the same lack of support and attention was present. In fact, most students simply thought it was normal to feel overwhelmed, undernourished and frequently anxious. As we reevaluate how students get into college, we should also reexamine how they’ll spend their time there and how it will impact their mental health. We should do what we can do to support mental health, or else we will see the continuation of a mental health epidemic.

And it is an epidemic.

Since 2006, the number of youth experiencing major depressive episodes has jumped by more than 60 percent, from 7.9 to 12.8 percent. That means that in 2016, 3,212,800 youth between the ages of 12 and 17 years old went through such an episode. That’s an Iowa-sized group of youth that likely did not receive adequate support for their mental health struggles. This lack of attention is made worse by considering the trauma associated with these episodes. Of those that experienced such an episode, 70 percent had a severe impairment as well. And, given that 16 percent of UC Berkeley students visited campus counseling centers in 2016, it’s likely that many Bears have gone through similarly difficult experiences.

Local and national trends indicate that the mental health epidemic is far from over. UC Berkeley recently announced a switch to a new health insurance provider with a less-than-stellar reputation for reimbursing mental health-related care. On the national level, President Trump’s antics have negatively impacted the mental health of his constituents and his actions have likewise been harmful. For example, his budget called for cutting nearly $18 billion from the Department of Health and Human Services.

America has a mixed record in combating epidemics. We’ve acknowledged the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but still have a long way to go in terms of equal access to the best treatments as well as reducing stigmas. We’ve seen bipartisan support to prioritize reducing opioid addiction. But still, every day, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 130 people die from an opioid overdose. Lawmakers are working hard to find the best legislation to reduce this number. We’ve received all the warning signs necessary that the mental health epidemic requires more support, research and funding. American youth are waiting for the rest of the nation to recognize the importance of this issue. The proof is in the numbers: a Pew poll found that 70 percent of teenagers view mental health as a bigger issue than bullying, drug addiction or gangs.

So what’s required to deal with our latest epidemic?

First, we need to confront the stigma attached to mental health by providing people suffering with mental health the space and support to share their story with others. Only after substantial counseling and years of support from my loved ones have I grown comfortable discussing my history with anorexia. Now I take advantage of any and all opportunities to talk about it. Case in point, when my cohort at the Harvard Kennedy School did a “share your story” event, I highlighted how being anorexic shaped my upbringing and perspective. Next year, when I start as a law student at the UC Berkeley School of Law, I intend to similarly share my story with the broader Berkeley community.

By wearing my mental health on my sleeve, I like to think I’m helping normalize that it’s okay to experience anxiety, depression and any other mental health ailment. I’m still learning from others about how best to share my story. As more people acknowledge their mental health history, we’ll pare back a stigma that has allowed mental health to go undiscussed and, in some cases, untreated.

Second, we need to study and then share best practices. Forward-thinking companies and public sector organizations have adopted strategies to improve mental health within their community. These strategies — which may be as simple as placing a blue dot on your desk to show you’re a person comfortable with discussing mental health — ought to be analyzed and then tailored to new environments where applicable. This approach will also necessitate giving institutional leaders such as teachers more resources to learn about tactics they can employ to make their students feel more comfortable with their mental health.

Third, we need to continue to support mental health research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has received budget increases in recent years after a decade of insufficient funding. By investing in organizations such as the NIH, we can find new approaches to mental health challenges as old as humankind. There’s no reason mental health treatment should derail someone’s professional and personal life. Innovative techniques such as telemedicine have the potential to provide mental health support to underserved and rural communities that may have previously been forced to simply deal with their mental hurdles. These techniques require more testing and more funding.

Mental health may be in your head, but it affects your body, your loved ones and your community. It’s time we acknowledge that mental health isn’t something we can ignore.

Kevin Frazier is a master’s student at Harvard Kennedy School and a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law.