Education and Mental Illness
Today, mental illnesses affect a significant percentage of the population. Although the topic remains quite taboo, more and more individuals find themselves struggling in professional, academic or social contexts due to these disorders. A mental illness is a certain malfunction of an individual’s brain that causes behavioral, emotional or thought changes; these changes result from interior or exterior causes and experiences. They hinder one’s life on a regular basis through distinct difficulties that have a wide variety of obstructive- and possibly disabling- symptoms. Mental illnesses include, for example, struggles with depression, anxiety, bipolarity, anorexia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. One group of individuals that shows itself to be strongly affected by mental disorders today is students. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, an estimated “ten to twenty percent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness (…).” Furthermore, the consequences of mental illness are a growing threat for young generations: “Canada’s youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world” (https://cmha.ca/about-cmha). One pivotal inducer of these disorders in children is their school setting and system. These alarming statistics should serve as a catalyst for modifications made to the modern education system. Yet, mental health and wellbeing remain a subordinate concern in schools that continue to prioritize subject-specific learning and academic excellence, rather than healthy individuals and relationships. This mindset is detrimental to students who suffer from disorders. It creates a strong sense of inequity as neurotypical students do not struggle with the complex issues students with mental illnesses face. Therefore, the education world needs to destigmatize mental illness and succor students with mental illnesses by providing them with more resources and information thus offering them a more equitable learning experience amongst their peers.
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One of the most obvious ways in which education creates inequity between students with mental illnesses and their classmates is by conserving a very rigid system with methods and practices that specifically suit neurotypical students. The current school system that stems from contemporary lifestyle and mindset has led to the conception of an academic “mental norm” that harms and disadvantages mentally ill students. This conception conveys the idea of there being a “norm” in most situations. More often than we know, the way people perceive the majority clouds their understanding of the population as a whole, disregarding diversity entirely. For example, because the majority of people are body abled and can walk up stairs, the belief is that stairs are the best tool to offer, even though a minority of individuals cannot use them. In regards to education and student mental health, the general belief is that the large majority of students can follow the curriculum and fulfill academic expectations with no harmful mental strain, though this is far from true. This education system therefore indirectly validates the idea that an individual that struggles with these expectations must adapt to the set work ethic in order to succeed. Not only is the said framework of teaching based on the capacities of a certain group of students, it additionally “others” and disadvantages those who do not fit in it. This often causes stress-based disorders because students who are not neurotypical struggle to meet academic requirements.
The predominant problem with stress is that it “is often a risk factor for poor mental health outcomes such as anxiety and depression” (https://www.edcan.ca/articles/teen-stress). According to psychiatrist Dr. Jean Clinton, when an individual’s stress system is turned and kept on, “new learning can’t happen” because it largely interferes with student academic abilities. (https://globalnews.ca/news). Even more alarming, there is a correlation between the increase in the amount of students struggling with mental illness and the rise of youth suicide. This is notably due to the fact that the different consequences of mental illness push students towards a feeling of extreme hopelessness and loss of drive and motivation. Not only do many mental disorders spark oppressive and dark thoughts, they have a pivotal impact on self-confidence; it is when students need the most support that they find themselves feeling the least understood and included. With these results, schools should offer new and innovative learning approaches to ensure students maintain a healthy mindset or get them back on their feet effectively. By not doing so, they disadvantage mentally ill students.
Today, school is a place where one is expected to work to their maximum potential in order to succeed in their future life in the professional world. Learning, understanding and achieving is the priority; all other concerns are considered secondary. Everyone must fit the neurotypical “box” to make it in the future, and students with disorders cannot fulfill those demands, consequentially feeling “othered”. Neurotypical students are already more inclined to do well in school than students with mental illnesses, yet they are further advantaged because of the work ethic in their favor that is rooted in our school systems. Moreover, these unhealthy values that offer praise to the most successful students and look down on those who do not fulfill academic expectations foster feelings of competition, rivalry and low self-esteem, hindering mental wellness in return.
Evidently, the school work ethic we know today was not built on the neurotypical majority at random. Like all educational dimensions, it was founded with the intention of representing and corresponding to the abilities and needs of the most amount of students possible. Yet, we see that this is undesirable on several levels, notably due to the effect it has on all minorities present in the classroom. Just because most students are neurotypical, it does not mean we should only offer a neurotypical approach to all students. In comparison, it isn’t considered equitable to teach about a topic with religious or gender biases, as it calls out students with diverging opinions or practices and damages their sense of belonging to the group.
One element of today’s school system that particularly affects students with mental disorders is standardized testing. Tests mainly serve to rank, order and compare students and schools between themselves (Froese-Germain, 2001, pp.113-118). Although standardized testing presents a multitude of concerns, its main problem in regards to mental health is the way these results and methods obstruct student mental wellness significantly. According to Froese-Germain (p.118), standardized testing practices “foster a negative self-image (…)” and “in an atmosphere of growing competition for students, pressure to raise average test scores can result in the devaluing of less successful students.” Schools are creating an unhealthy climate for students who struggle with stress, and proceed to deteriorating their confidence, which even further pulls them into a state of mental unhealthiness. The flawed methods used in schools today often spark the development of mental disorders with unhealthy practices and push individuals into states of ailment and isolation by sticking to the neurotypical work ethic.
The education world further creates unfairness in regards to students with mental disorders as they offer very few solutions to these difficulties within school walls. The lack thereof is concerning, seeing as numerous individuals would benefit from school-based resources. The consequences of neglecting mental health are far too important to belittle the matter. “School-based mental health services are as effective as traditional outpatient clinic services in improving clinical outcomes, do a better job of engaging and retaining families and are associated with reduced stigma” (Kang-Yi et al., 2017, p. 105). School-based services not only help in the treatment of mental disorders. They also help reduce the “othering” phenomenon by breaking down the barriers of mental illnesses and offering accessible support and guidance, all while simultaneously lessening the impact these disorders have on academic success. This service is an asset in helping reduce absenteeism and dropout rates (Kang-Yi et al, 2017), also factors of isolation. Even with its numerous benefits, only a small percentage of schools offer very effective mental health support services (therapy or psychological support) to students in need of them. Forms of help and support are still very limited within schools. In some instances, nurses can offer effective guidance to students through intervention and referral to specialists. Some schools also turn to basic training of guidance counsellors or teachers on the subject. However, these options are rudimentary solutions to a complex issue.
The multitude of benefits that school-based mental health services offer should encourage more schools to conceive a mental support system within their walls, but it is a stagnating initiative. As stated in the People for Education annual report on Ontario’s publicly funded schools (2017), less than half of all elementary schools in the province offer a certain form of health education, instructed by part-time or full-time Health and Physical Education teachers. This percentage has not significantly increased over the past decade, though mental disorder tendencies have (p. 17).
One of the main challenges that individuals with mental disorders face is the stigma of being mentally ill and misconceptions. School plays a vital role in the social, cognitive and intellectual development of all students, and its power as a social institution is immense (Puskar & Bernardo, 2007). Consequentially, mentally ill students suffer profoundly from the peer judgement their disorder attracts to them, which encourages them to stay silent about their struggles out of fear or feelings of embarrassment. “For many people with mental illness these stigmatizing attitudes and discrimination are more difficult to deal with than the mental illness symptoms” (https://www.quebec.ca/en/health/advice-and-prevention). In this respect, schools tend to stimulate rather than reduce the stigma. By not offering services to students, schools nourish the idea that mental illness is something to be ashamed of. Therefore, individuals try to avoid any “potentially stigmatizing interactions” (Moses, 2010, p. 985), especially with peers, as the most common stigmatization experiences occur between students. It is the school’s role to try to make mental illness a more accepted reality than how it currently is to better the learning experience of students who live with mental disorders. Educating about and offering help for mental disorders, especially by making resources readily available within schools, would reduce the stigma around mental illness drastically.
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Another reason why school-based mental health services would create a more equitable setting is that it would limit the growing division between mentally ill students and their classmates. Since most effective services are currently offered outside school doors, students must commit a lot of their leisure time to their health. This inevitably reduces the time they can dedicate to social interactions with friends and family, although these social contexts are essential to impede isolation. Likewise, time mentally ill students must dedicate to therapy outside of class hours is time they cannot commit to schoolwork. They therefore suffer from inequity from two different standpoints: in-class and outside of school. In class, most cannot handle the imposed work ethic due to their mental struggles. Outside school doors, they must commit a large percentage of their time and energy to their personal wellbeing. Young students suffer from these commitments, often because they do not understand why they are essential. This is a particularly inequitable situation, as those who are already advantaged in class are also advantaged outside of school. They can devote time to socially stimulating activities, character-building projects, or further work on their academic capacities at home. With the amplitude of the effects of certain mental disorders, they require extensive care, which is done to the detriment of students’ academic success and social integration.
The fact that teaching about mental illness is kept to a minimum also creates a certain level of inequity between students. Although many schools throughout Canada abide to a Ministry of Education that promotes mental health education, the place it occupies in the curriculum, compared to troublesome reality of mental illness today, is unsettling. Even when it is present in the curriculum, mental health education is very flawed. As stated in the report of Mental Health Education In Canada (2014), “While most curriculum documents had specified “mental” or “emotional” health units, it was just as typical for mental health concepts and skills to be woven into topics on other determinants of health (…). This finding furthered an emphasis to examine mental health dynamically within the context of other health-related determinants rather than viewing it in isolation.” (p. 30). It is important to teach students about the different dimensions there are to mental illnesses; teaching about such a complex notion cannot be approached in the same manner as other “disciplines” or areas of study. Mental health education should equip students with the tools to identify, comprehend, prevent, and treat mental illness. We recognize that knowledge is a great source of power for individuals, so teaching students more actively about their wellness and health (on both physical and mental levels) would have a variety of benefits. It would enlighten them, teach them about their own development, and allow them to be of better help to their friends and families. Students learn about racism, gender issues and religious diversity to comprehend their personal biases and subjective views, so why not do the same with mental health? In addition, teaching techniques and methods to help oneself is fruitful; the same way students are encouraged to tackle their difficulties in mathematics through thorough understanding of the material and the practice of methods shown in class, they should be given the resources to understand their mental wellbeing and act upon it if necessary.
Furthermore, active and open discussion about the topic will innately aid with issues of stigmatization and sensitivity. In effect, proactive mental health education would help in terms of equity because students who do not struggle with mental illness would still be able to understand their peers more, and not be as judgmental when it comes to these disorders. As previously mentioned, one reason why mental illnesses affect students so significantly is because these individuals feel isolated due to prejudice and misconceptions. Therefore, mentally ill students either favor creating relations with students going through similar struggles or not disclosing about their struggles to not come off as “weird” to classmates (Moses, 2010, p. 986). If all students learned about mental health and its different facets, then they would be more apt to help out classmates through difficult times.
To add on, students with mental illnesses would more clearly recognize their struggles and be less hard on themselves. The initial reaction to mental illness, especially when it first manifests itself, is trying to “persevere” through it. Yet, when this fight is not done in the right manner, students risk even further harming themselves. Not educating students means these individuals cannot detect when their personal wellness is at stake. In being able to analyze their wellbeing and interpret their feelings or emotions, students will more easily be able to turn towards support services and help. Beyond professional help, teachers and parents can participate in helping “their kids find (that) balance, provide them with tools such as problem solving, conflict resolution and building a thick skin to help cope with roadblocks in life. That way, youth are armed and prepared to handle responsibilities and inevitable setbacks.” (https://globalnews.ca/news). Not all students living with mental illnesses feel the need to reach out for backing, but it is key to be able to provide support and guidance in times of need for them to feel like they belong and matter. To a certain extent, in seeing an individual with a physical disorder, one can assume certain difficulties this individual might face. A person in a wheelchair can evidently not use stairs, nor can a blind individual read a sign or text that is not available in braille. Though these may not be the only obstacles physically disabled people come across, it is a starting point to our understanding of their situation. Since mental illnesses are not visible, it is more difficult to grasp what a person is capable of or limited to. For this reason, it is important to inform ourselves to offer a more equitable experience to all students. Teaching about mental health strengthens the acknowledgement for diversity. Everyone’s schooling experience is different and colored by a wideset of factors. Whether it be due to their social economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs, individuals are subject to certain disadvantages or privileges that form their education experience. Mental illness is a pivotal factor in that respect.
Mentally ill students are marginalized in their school environment due to the lack of understanding and stigma around disorders. With the invisibility of mental disorders, they are often disregarding as being a shaping factor of an individual’s learning experience. However, nearly one in five students struggle with a disorder that hinders their mental wellness today. The aim of school is to prepare individuals for their future role in society and the professional world. It is a vital social institution that teaches many values and principles beyond curricular content. Although schools are supposed to guide students towards a larger understanding of a multitude of notions and concepts, the importance of understanding one’s own health and wellbeing remains a minor concern in most buildings. Education creates inequity in regards to students who struggle with mental illnesses by being a determining inducer of these disorders without providing students with help to get back on their feet, so these students are strongly disadvantaged compared to their neurotypical peers. In proposing resources and more relevant information on the topic, students will not suffer from isolation and stigmatization as much and benefit from a learning experience that is more equitable.
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