We Need To STOP Talking About Kids’ Mental Health
“ I am afraid to go in the water daddy,” said my oldest child , who is now 15, eight years ago during our annual family beach vacation to the Outer Banks, NC.
That particular year, there had been a lot of shark attacks in the news, and she had heard them. Of course, at her age, it had never occurred to her that there were animals out there that could consume human beings, and the thought was appropriately distressing to her. The problem was that we were three days into a week long vacation and her refusal to enter the water was wreaking havoc on everyone’s enjoyment of the vacation. She would get super hot on the beach and demand to go inside, which was a major bummer for everyone/
I had to think of a solution, and I came up with a plan: I went down to one of the little beach side shops and bought a shell necklace for about five dollars. I then told her that the necklace was magical, and it would protect her from any harm while she was in the water. In other words, yes, I lied to my child. BUT, this lie worked and the result was an enjoyable vacation for all. The daughter in question, Zoey, had always been a “beach person” and once the fear of sharks had been eliminated, she was free to enjoy the ocean as she always had.
This anecdote illustrates the first premise I will use to prove that we need to stop talking about children’s mental health to the extent we have been, which is that children believe what we tell them. If we consistently bombard kids with the idea that they are a generation of children weighed down by a plethora of mental illnesses, they are going to buy into that idea. Even worse, there will be some who see an advantage in claiming a mental health issue that isn’t there.
I am , of course, not saying that there aren’t kids who legitimately suffer from mental health issues, but it is up to professionals to decide in whom they exist and how to treat them. In the meantime , we adults should stop with the mantra that mental health issues are ubiquitous and address how to change the environment that has given legs to that mantra. In order to do THAT we need to look at the failings that we as a society have precipitated so far .
ELIMINATION OF STRESS
I believe that nearly everyone has seen “The Princess Bride” , which was and is a pretty awesome film. In that movie Westley, the protagonist, engages in a “battle of wits” with an adversary in which the two men try to guess which of two drinks contains a deadly poison. The winner of the contest “wins” a kidnapped princess and the loser, as Westley succinctly puts it “Is dead”. Westley prevails and when the princess asks how he knew which glass had the poison in it, Westley reveals that they both drinks were spiked with deadly “iocaine powder” , and he only survived because he had built up a tolerance to it by ingesting very minute amounts over years and years.
What does this have to do with anything? A noble question, for sure. See, many measures — such as no-zero grading policies and a nearly complete elimination of due dates for student work — have been put in place by school systems across the country with the idea of reducing student stress and thereby boosting students’ mental health. However, there is evidence that these stress reduction measures may have the exact opposite effect of what is intended. In his book Spark: How Exercise Will Improve the Performance of Your Brain Dr. John J. Ratey writes that “…stress seems to have an effect on the brain similar to that of vaccines on the immune system”. Furthermore, he introduces the term “stress inoculation” , which is commonly used by neuroscientists, meaning that immunity to stress can be built up via exposure to stress, much as Westley built up his resistance to the deadly poison in the movie. Finally, Ratey states:
What’s gotten lost amid all the advice about how to reduce the stress of modern life is that challenges are what allow us to strive and grow and learn. The parallel on the cellular level is that stress sparks brain growth Assuming that stress is not too severe and that neurons are given time to recover, the connections become stronger and our mental machinery works better. Stress is not a matter of good and bad- it’s a necessity.
So, if we use this information as a lens through which to look at education, by eliminating zeroes and by negating due dates we are depriving students of a necessity. I concur and I think that we are already seeing the negative effects of such measures. As a general observation, I believe that students are losing the ability to process normal levels of stress that exist and should exist in school. When an inability to cope with stress is combined with the never ending conversations about mental health, the result is you have a lot of mixed up kids who think they have mental health issues but are actually just experiencing the mild strain of what it means to be a student even in the watered down version of what that equates to now. They simply don’t have the coping skills to navigate through problems they should be able to navigate through, and educational policies are completely to blame for the absence of those skills.
I will give one specific anecdote to further explain the point I am trying to make. I have an incredibly bright student who chose to take an extremely difficult course load in his or her senior year. One day, this student ( who I have in an elective class) announced that I should give the students mental breaks and be more cognizant of what students like him or her are going through. So, the student made choices and now expects other people, in this case me, to adjust their lives and schedules to accommodate those choices. The personal responsibility isn’t there because students like him or her and many others have bought into the belief that other people need to facilitate their ease in life. I worry what happens when bright, capable students like this enter the work world unprepared to succeed because educational policies have left the adrift in a quagmire without a paddle.
UNWILLINGNESS TO CHANGE
When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s there were virtually no limitations on where people could smoke, and there were no shoulder harnesses for automobile passengers in the back seats. As evidence mounted about the dangers of secondhand smoke, and as more and more backseat passengers were bashed into oblivion, American society evolved and all but eliminated smoking in public and took many measures to make automobiles safer.
While we have seen many changes like the aforementioned ones, we really haven’t seen education evolve at all. Sure, we have more technology now, but the general outline of “comeinsitdownpretendtopayattentiondoatasketc” really hasn’t changed and it really needs to. I truly believe that a major reason we need to completely change the landscape of education has to do with obesity. According to the World Health Organization “The prevalence of overweight and obesity among children aged 5–19 has risen dramatically from just 4% in 1975 to just over 18 percent in 2016”. This astounding leap in obesity has much to do with the sedentary nature of today’s children and teens. According to a study presented in Time magazine, over 81% of adolescents did not meet the WHO recommendations of one hour of moderate to vigorous activity a day in 2016. While that study was inclusive of kids world wide, the image below indicates that 70% of school-going American kids ages 11–17 years old are getting insufficient physical activity.
I think cell phones are largely to blame for this, but that is a subject for another time. For now, let’s focus on the fact that nearly one in five American kids are overweight or obese and seven in ten aren’t getting enough physical activity. What do we do with these kids in school? We put them in chairs for 8 hours a day!
Dr. Ratey, once again in Spark, states:
From the time Homo Sapiens emerged two million years ago, until the agricultural revolution, ten thousand years ago, everyone was a hunter-gatherer, and life was marked by periods of intense physical activity followed by days of rest. It was feast or famine. By calculating how much our forebears ‘exercised’ and comparing it to figures from today, it’s easy to see where the problem lies: Our average energy expenditure per unit of body mass is less than 38 percent of that of our Stone Aged ancestors. And I think it’s fair to say that our calorie intake has increased quite a bit. The kicker is that even if we followed the most demanding governmental recommendations for exercise ….we’d still be at less than half the energy expenditures for which our genes are encoded.
So, we take our sedentary kids, we make them MORE sedentary, we know obesity is on the rise and we wonder why we see so many cases of ADHD and ADD. Kids need to burn energy, and when they don’t or are forced not to ( as is the case when they are in school) that energy is going to have to get released somewhere else. I believe wholeheartedly that if educational policy evolved in the way that many other aspects of American society has, with intense scrutiny of solvable problems and astute rectification of those problems, we would see a dramatic elimination of ADHD and ADD cases and a corresponding rise in academic achievement. But, ironically, we have devolved in education due to an unwillingness to change our belief that we must eliminate stress for students.
OK SO WHAT DO WE DO
Let’s start with what we don’t do. We don’t continue to ignore the positive aspects of stress. Even if you don’t fully believe the contentions of Dr. Ratey or myself, you must concede that nobody gets through life without stress and people need to learn to handle it as a consequence. We don’t keep echoing the stultifying “We need to protect our children’s mental health” cries because the more we shout it , the more kids are going to believe that the adults who ostensibly care for them and have their best interests at heart think that they are a generation rife with mental health issues when that simply may not be the case at all. Finally, we don’t continue to medicate and label our kids without taking a good hard look at what conditions are causing this to be so.
Now, on to what we DO do:
- We get the goddamned phones out of their goddamned hands! Some kids may be capable of monitoring their phone use, but I think it is safe to say that most can’t. They need adults around to take them away and boot them out the door.
2. We completely reevaluate education taking a holistic approach to helping students become their best selves. In a previous post, I advocated eliminating interscholastic sports. This may seem contradictory , but high school athletic programs are a tremendous waste of money dedicated to only kids who make teams and subsidized by all taxpayers. That money would be better spent in creating top notch exercise facilities for all schools and realistic exercise programs designed around heart rate training.
3. Also as I stated in a previous post, athletic fields should be tuned into agricultural fields and used to produce farm to table fresh foods for students while teaching everything from horticulture to math to chemistry.
4. We change the rhetoric from “mental health issues” to “ Health and Education Achievement Plans” and create realistic curriculums catering to individual student needs.
I firmly believe that if we employ these measures they will minimize the need to continue talking about the kids’ mental health issues we need to stop talking about!