Mental health and education: Encouraging mental wellness in American youth

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In an effort to drive down health care costs and promote a healthier generation of young people, the ACA has set out to bring better mental health care to America’s kids, teens and young adults. This includes initiatives to address mental health in schools.

Programs and incentives
Funding from the ACA isn’t just earmarked for electronic health records or meaningful use incentives. As important as mental health EHR systems are, raising awareness of the importance of mental health issues is a necessary first step.

Parity laws have already made an impact in the U.S., requiring insurance companies to treat mental and physical health deductibles interchangeably. The ACA plans to expand on those laws even more.

In June 2013, President Barack Obama hosted the National Conference on Mental Health to discuss how the U.S. could make it easier for Americans of all ages to get mental wellness help when they need it most. The emphasis in the President’s speech was placed on the country’s youth – a major topic of conversation nationally in recent years, following incidents of gun violence and school shootings in the country.

Mental health funding will get a boost from the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget proposal, which included an initiative to help teachers and adults working with children gain access to the tools and knowledge they need to recognize signs of mental illness in students. The proposal also aims to help train 5,000 new mental health professions, placing an emphasis on treating students and young people. Another aim of the proposal is supporting a series of innovative state-based mental health programs for young adults between 16 and 25.

Taking initiatives in schools
Not all school districts are relying on the ACA to jump start mental health initiatives. KBIA, a mid-Missouri NPR-affiliate, recently reported that Governor Jay Nixon’s is launching a mental health program in which 200 K-12 school teachers, counselors and administrators in Missouri will gather in Columbia, to learn about mental illness in schools. The discussion will focus on identifying and responding to signs of mental illness, as well as promoting understanding about conditions among educators.

Jermine Alberty, a mental health first aid instructor working with a team of co-instructors, explained how important understanding mental illness is. For example, he said, one of the first activities he has trainees do is write down derogatory terms for mental illness.

“You hear everything from psycho, crazy, nuts, and I take that piece of paper we write it on, then I ball it up, then I throw it in the trash,” Alberty said.

The subtext is clear, but removing the stigma is essential to the core of the training program – even if that means literally tossing it in the trash. According to Alberty, trainees are also briefed in how to respond appropriately to mental health crises, such as suicidal thoughts or panic attacks.

The Columbia event isn’t the first of its kind in Missouri, according to KBIA. In fact, Missouri’s mental health first aid training program was started in 2008, and according to Alberty around 9,000 individuals have been trained in the state. The Columbia event is the fourth of seven planned mental health first aid training sessions funded through an initiative spearheaded by State Governor Jay Nixon. The sessions, which last 8 hours, have focused on other groups working with youth as well, including religious leaders and higher education administrators. KBIA reported that Nixon’s proposal for the program came just a month after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.

“Teachers are on the frontlines to see mental health problems start in the classrooms,” Nixon said. “Principals see these kids act out. Rather than having that cascade into a life of tragedy or danger for others, we think getting this training on the front end can make a real, lasting difference.”

Alongside the ACA – which will improve coverage to millions and expand coverage to millions more – state initiatives like those in Missouri could have a massive impact on young people. Schools provide an excellent and fertile ground for mental health programs, both when talking to educators and students.

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