Every year for as long as I can remember, I went to the pediatrician’s office around my birthday for my yearly checkup. I received vaccinations, had my height and weight recorded, and completed the standard routine of a physical.
Around the time I turned thirteen, I started filling out a questionnaire before I saw the doctor; you had to rank how often you thought or felt a specific way, such as “I have depressive thoughts” or “I have trouble sleeping at night” or “I feel tired and exhausted.” I would hand in the clipboard to the front desk, and thus I completed my mental health checkup for the year.
Most of the time I would just lie on the questionnaire. In high school, I would typically get 5-6 hours of sleep each night and would barely have the energy to go through the arduous day of club meetings, classes, sports games and practices, tests, and homework. But on the questionnaire under “I feel tired or exhausted,” I would just put “once a week.” It didn’t seem like it mattered what I answered. How could I encapsulate in a simple 10 question form (which has stayed the same since I started filling it out) the continuous swarm of stress, exhaustion, and frustration that clouded my brain every single day? I don’t think it is possible.
In health class, we labeled body parts on diagrams of both the inner and outer organs involved with sexual reproduction. We watched documentaries about sexual harassment and bullying. We learned how to give CPR and first aid. We did projects on the dangers of hard drugs and drunk driving and how accidents are the leading cause of death amongst adolescents. Yet we never talked about the second leading cause of deaths for people aged 15 to 19—suicide.
For some reason, physical health is regarded as more important to teach in schools than is its counterpart—mental health. Sure we had a school psychologist, but could I tell you where the office was or what the psychologist’s name was? I couldn’t even tell you the psychologist’s gender. Going to see the school psychologist was not normalized as compared with seeing the school nurse.
College, so far, hasn’t been much better. Part of the issue is the isolation brought on by covid and the only interactions I have occurring over a screen. Yet I think the real problem lies in both the cost of seeing a therapist regularly and our inability to see the need for preventative measures. According to Northwestern Mutual, in cities, the typical cost of one 45 minute session with a therapist ranges from $75 to $150, depending on insurance coverage. And while many colleges do offer some form of cheaper counselling or therapy to students, it is typically only seen as something to pursue when you are at the cliff’s edge. Prevention and continual care, just as we ensure in our yearly physicals and checkups, should be just as important in mental health care.
The first time you go to a therapist or seek help shouldn’t have to be when it feels as though your world is falling to pieces. Mental health care needs to be integrated into school’s education systems. So many of the problems and behaviors that arise in students stem from their own internal issues—bullying others due to a child’s own insecurities, drugs used as a coping mechanism for escaping the pressures of school and to feel an artificial high, and so many other problems.
Instead of wondering why a student might be driven to take drugs and pursue a course of empathy in what struggles someone may be going through, health teachers have tried to scare students by showing them the physical damages done to the body—if suicide is the second leading cause of death in elder teenagers, is showing potential harm to the body really the most effective course of prevention? Instead of questioning why a student might be driven to bully others and shift the attention away from his/her own insecurities, educators simply preach that bullying is terrible and morally wrong. If counselling sessions were offered to children to find underlying causes of bullying, anti-social behavior, or any other issue, this could be of great benefit to the student.
Mental health is just as important and worthwhile as physical health, yet we do not treat the two areas equally. As children are growing up, mental health “checkups” should be just as standardized if not occur more often than physical “checkups.” Our brain’s malleability and neuroplasticity (ability of the brain to grow, change, and adapt) only decreases as we age. Mental health could be woven into the fabric of our brains and help those in the generations to come, if instilled from an early age. Let’s take a few steps back from the edge of the cliff and make mental health care a priority for both ourselves and our children.