I’m currently teaching a college class called “Adolescent Literacy in a New Literacy World.” The purpose of the class is to introduce students who are in the teacher preparation program to the many modes of communication that have revealed themselves to be a literacy experience; for example, we are looking at blogs, websites, Voxer, videography, podcasts, coding, gamification and other modes that are literally developing daily. The goal is to help inform their perspectives of literacy, especially as it relates to technology, while providing pre-service teachers with tools to engage students. As with every class I teach—in middle school, college or graduate school—the culmination is a “passion project” (you can see my webinar here). I’ve asked these college students to choose a topic that is near and dear to them and use multiple modes to engage our class in a 20-minute experience. Topics range from language learning to grit to, interestingly, the importance of early mental health education. I say “interestingly” because I believe mental health is the last taboo in American culture.
Really? The last taboo? Am I being dramatic? Nope. Let me explain. Today’s students are actually quite informed about a number of topics that, in all honesty, many adults are not. Lots of schools do a terrific job of teaching students, even very young ones, about alcoholism, drug abuse, same-sex relationships, gender identity, domestic violence, peer pressure, racism, sexism, ageism and a litany of other serious and complex issues. However, for a variety of reasons, in the last 20 years, a surprising number of schools have shied away from teaching social-emotional skills, all of which promote positive mental health. In many instances, the lessons of sharing, persistence, friendship and self-control have been replaced with reading and math drills. I’m not here to judge, as I totally get the pressure to increase performance outcomes and the like.
However, during a conversation with Anna Shatzel, the student who is doing her passion project on early mental health education and early interventions around social and emotional needs, we both realized just how taboo this topic is. In my book, The Flexible SEL Classroom, I attempt to almost covertly insert social and emotional skill building into the everyday classroom experience, as I know that teachers don’t need “one more thing” to worry about. Yet, as Anna and I talked, we came to the same conclusion: Most people are somewhat comfortable with talking about these topics in a roundabout way, but there is a taboo around mental health to the degree that it is nearly impossible to overtly and transparently talk about it. Case in point: Anna wanted to survey the class, anonymously, about how many students had ever had counseling or help with their mental health. We decided that she needed to send the link to the survey outside of class, because some people might not want to comment on this topic, even anonymously, in public. Her greatest concern for the presentation (and I agree with her) is that the entire class will clam up and simply not participate.
As we deconstructed this situation, Anna passionately started explaining to me the amazing outcomes schools are achieving from implementing programs to overtly teach the social and emotional skills that can positively impact mental health. The program she is going to highlight, PEDALS (Positive Emotional Development and Learning Skills), is local to Erie County, N.Y., where we live, but its model is consistent with those popping up around the nation. With solid data, why are we still afraid to touch this last taboo?
Let me tell you why. In my book, I call it “Dr. Phil armchair psychiatry.” We all have a tiny bit of information about mental health, based on either our own experiences, that of a loved one, channel surfing or taking “Am I OCD?” quizzes at the dentist office. That is not enough. The social and emotional needs of our students—their mental health—as well as our mental health, must not be condensed into the span of an afternoon talk show. We must become educated, ask for assistance and address policy. As I wrote:
In the United States, we all practice a particularly dismissive form of Dr. Phil armchair psychiatry, and unfortunately real conversations about mental health and happiness are the last taboos. This pop culture treatment of our collective well-being undermines the ability of schools to appropriately and successfully help students achieve academic, social, and emotional success.
We cannot ignore this last taboo. Taboos are created when the collective population abides by an authority’s definition of what is “good” and “bad,” and what is “appropriate” and “inappropriate.” There are 3.2 million teachers in the United States. What if we all used our authority to decide that the social and emotional needs of our students are important—that mental health must not be ignored—and what if we used our collective voices and votes? I count it as a win that Anna will be presenting on this topic next week, but we have a long way to go before this stigma is eliminated. It is only when a new authority rises up that a taboo can be conquered, and I’m counting on all of us.