Mental Health? What’s That?

Katherine Nguyen and Pallavi Rajani

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“Split.” “Psycho.” “Girl, Interrupted.” Hollywood movies tend to use mental health as a driving force through their characters. Often a defining characteristic of the villain, mental illnesses such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) leave a mark on the audience—crazy people have this.

But this understanding stops here. Despite the prevalence of mental illness, teaching about mental health is not as common as one would think. Classified by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights as an epidemic, nearly 12.8 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 17 experienced at least one major depressive episode (MDE) in 2016, higher than any year in any other decade to boot.

However, nowhere in the California Biology Curriculum is the topic of mental illness mentioned, which means teachers are not required to spend dedicated time to address it—some do, but others do not. Beyond the curriculum, only two states in the U.S. require schools to have a mental health curriculum. New York requires it from kindergarten through 12th grade, and Virginia only requires it in 9th and 10th grade.

Emily Boudreau, UPA’s mental health counselor, has been working at the school as of February 2017. From her counseling experience, she acknowledges the lack of mental illnesses being addressed in the classroom.

“The science behind it is definitely not explained or taught in schools,” Boudreau said. “Like the chemistry of the brain and depression and anxiety. That’s not very well known and it’s not taught so how are we supposed to know it.”

Ashwini Gupta, a marriage and family therapist (MFT) with a specialty in adolescent behavior, finds that mental health and the associated disorders take time to learn about.

“[Mental health] is an interesting subject, but we can’t answer it shortly,” she said. “It takes time and energy to teach it. It can’t be covered in a day.”

For Gupta, teaching such a sensitive topic takes time and cannot be covered in quick seminars. “Actions need to be taken to normalize mental illnesses,” Gupta said. “Because that’s all it is; an illness. It doesn’t make you weird or crazy.”

Stress-relief workshops are one of the ways UPA addresses mental health as instructors teach mindfulness techniques to attendees who want to build focus.

However, sophomore Helene Vu, who faces severe depression and anxiety, believes that the awareness brought in these workshops are not carried out effectively for the majority of students. “It’s already one thing to have to learn it but then to also sit through that,” Vu said. “Things get boring and especially if you’re not allowed to do anything else.”

Boudreau believes that mental health awareness is starting to rise in UPA, but improvements can definitely be made to accommodate all students needing to address their health.

“It’s more than what a lot of schools have,” she said. “But based on the number of students receiving services and the hours I’m here, there are students that aren’t getting seen enough.”