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Resolved: Are Schools Failing To Provide Children With Mental Health Resources?

Is it time to bring in the therapists?

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A core part of our growth at Speakeasy has come from new team members that brought new perspectives. One of the great achievements in the short life of our publication is the intellectual diversity of our team. We have people that honestly and earnestly look at the world differently from one another and that is a tremendous net positive at a time when different voices are siloing themselves. Accordingly, the aim of this intellectual exercise is to build bridges and deepen understandings of different perspectives.

Below is an excerpt from our internal group Discord channel amongst Speakeasy editorial board members examining the idea of introducing a standardized mental health approach to Canadian education. We look less at legal arguments and move more from first principles and philosophy.

Be sure to keep an eye out for forthcoming weekly conversations in June about Israel/Palestine. If you would be interested in joining us for a discourse or have any suggestions for potential future discussions, please email us at editors@spkesy.ca

Paragraph Break, Speakeasy

Ari Blaff:

I think incorporating mental health guidance and research into modern educational initiatives is a double-edged sword that requires a great deal of nuance.

Without a doubt, we know more about mental health illness today and are more understanding than our predecessors. Moreover, thanks to programs like Bell Let’s Talk people are becoming more comfortable expressing the mental battles they are fighting.

However, despite such progress, Canadian students are still suffering tremendously from a mental health perspective. Just listen to these statistics quoted from a 2020 Maclean’s piece:

From 2007 to 2017, emergency visits related to mental health concerns for Canadians aged five to 24 increased by 75%. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence, young people aged 15-24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders than any other age group, and 34% of Ontario high school students indicate moderate to serious psychological distress, including symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Something clearly needs to be done, but the million-dollar-question is what and how?

One of the major downfalls of incorporating mental health guidance is the diversity of existing options and the politicization that currently accompanies the debate. For instance, the overmedicalization of educational spaces documented in books such as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s, The Coddling of The American Mind, leads us to question whether universities are doing a better job of placating students or achieving their mission of challenging them: intellectually and emotionally. A shameless bit of self-promotion but I’d strongly recommend people read Mane Kara-Yakoubian’s article on Speakeasy about trigger warnings for more research on this subject.

The same can be said of Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, which documents the overmedicalization of anxiety and depression treatments that have compressed our comfort with alternative, less profitable, approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and yoga. Our case presents a potentially troubling incentive in which Big Pharma and Big Education collaborate quite intimately.

Debates around educational policy, particularly textbooks or evolution (notably, the Scopes Trial), have been a long-running dispute in the United States and Canada for decades now. Fortunately, we can surmise there is nothing new about another frontier for discussion and debate – it will just take quite some time to settle and acclimate, too. The challenge, as I see it, is how to create an emotionally (as well as intellectually) resilient environment where we can challenge students but also strengthen them during a period of clear mental health crisis.

As usual, I think picking one side or another misses the messy middle where most of us should be looking. A coherent mental health programme for maturing students is needed but the incoherence of the other side of the equation – what and how – seems too large to bridge currently.

Unfortunately, children will suffer until we have a clear vision of what constitutes robust mental health from politicization of the issue.

M.Y.A. Writer:

I am proposing mental health awareness and some parts of healthy child rearing be done at an earlier age, yes!

From what I’ve read from Ari ‘s response, I believe we both agree (and as the studies show) traumas and unhealthy habits start settling at a far earlier age than in high school!

And as a secondary part of my argument (if parents want more agency in raising their children) they can opt into courses themselves to learn how to be more sensitive to their child’s needs and create boundaries in a more healthy way.

The second part doesn’t really work in late-stage capitalism where it is normalized to have more than half your day wasted in the endeavours of your corporate higher-ups.

But a lot of this is a more socialized and progressive take on education, so I think the assumption that this would have to exist in a more socialized/regulated society can be made.

Something to add: just because something requires nuance doesn’t mean it should be debated about forever. Policymakers need to realize that this is life and death and to have millions suffer or perish from mental health-related illnesses or over medication “because it is hard” is not an adequate excuse and is the type of inaction that has plagued many social justice movements (or even climate change) and prevents any real progress.

Noah Blaff:

Mental health is a big issue (especially among the younger generations). In fact, it is probably the biggest issue facing most of my peers daily. And education? Good education surrounding it should always be encouraged. However, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot: there is always a large shadow cast between the idea of mental health education and the reality of it.

Some starter questions for consideration might include: What type of role mental health have in our education system? Should it be required course credit to learn about mental health? Optional? Nutrition and (physical) health courses—to the best of my recollection — were optional in high school. (They are also infamous bird courses where very little is learned, but that might be getting too far away from the point at hand.) If the purpose of our education system is enabling pupils to live a healthy, educated life, and contribute to the economy, then I say there is benefit in implementing some form of mental health education.

As mentioned above, one of the delicate lines to walk is the politicization and over-medicalization which abound in these public settings. (As a quick aside, I have recently spoken with high school teachers who tell me how dogmatic the YRDSB’s approach to anti-racism and Black Lives Matter has become. There is a “top-down approach where no questions are allowed,” according to a former teacher of mine. I feel a similar risk presents itself with this.)

The default, ally-like response in education is always to say, “It’s not your fault. It’s …” When in many cases of anxiety and depression, there are lifestyle choices that weigh heavily into the diagnosis. Very few are cases of strict chemical imbalances. Many of the exponentially increasing cases cannot be solely attributed to a) less stigma, therefore, more diagnoses being made and b) pure biological causes of mental illnesses. There is no way that all (or even a majority of these cases) can be accounted for without acknowledging the elephant in our rooms: our phones, our mode of communication and social connection, I could go on and on and on…

A proper education would have to be honest and discuss the role everyone’s lifestyle plays in their mental health. The fact that many millennials and Gen Zs spend absurd amounts of time mindlessly scrolling through social media apps and memes. That the very nature of these platforms has slowly shifted our subjective selves into objects—baubles to be evaluated based on a number of likes or shares. As with all serious discussions, individuals need to be taught to recognize the self-harm they perpetuate with their lifestyles. (Another aside: I spoke with a female friend who admitted the harm that these apps cause her. She specializes in psychology and seeks to pursue social work. Her addiction, however, was so strong that even when she admitted she should delete the app, she felt a deathly fear over having to pull the trigger. Needless to say, she is still on.)

This is a long-winded way of saying that I am in full support of mental health education becoming a part of public education. In fact, I think that while we’re at it, more attention should be given to physical health and nutrition as well. I am for students learning how to reduce the chances of/deal with mental illness. I am for a reduction in the existing stigma that mental health still carries. I am for the government guiding its citizens to make better life choices. But I am NOT for a one-sided, “You didn’t do anything wrong,” “It’s because of the time you grew up in” approach.

I think younger generations have been given this spiel too often. Been able to shirk responsibility for problems. Admitting responsibility for a problem you have isn’t a bad thing—it’s a fact of life. Instead of blaming it on others, or technology, or the million other things friends tell friends to rationalize the impacts of their choices, people need to take some ownership. My trust in the education system (as you can tell) is terribly low, so while I am a staunch supporter of developing mental health education, I frighten at what I see it becoming left in the hands of our current planners.

Mane Kara-Yakoubian:

Thought that was really good, and definitely not too harsh; the point of therapy is just to help patients realize the maladaptive behaviours and cognitive traps they fall into.

Addressing mental health is certainly not what you see on Instagram and TikTok. No competent clinician would tell their patient, “Hey, there’s nothing you can do. This is just how it is for you.”

Ari Blaff:

From what I gather so far, M.Y.A, Mane, and Noah, we all seem to be in agreement on several core principles. First, that mental health is a tremendous issue impacting our generation. Moreover, that anti-stigmatization has been a remarkable benefit to our cohort. Lastly, the harmful implications social media/smartphone addiction has upon younger populations.

Circling back to M.Y.A’s emphasis on the pressing need to address this issue — “Policymakers need to realize that this is life and death and to have millions suffer…” — prompts me to consider the question of So What? from a new perspective.

Allowing the problem to fester is clearly not working but, tragically, so too is meaningful reform being hampered by competing views over what precisely constitutes a “mental health issue” and how best to resolve it.

Can we identify any foundational/core educational initiatives (e.g. prohibiting smartphone usage in schools until high school?) that the vast majority of us could agree on without falling prey to stickier issues we’ve identified above?

Mane Kara-Yakoubian:

Resiliency and self-help cognitive behavioural therapy training. Instead of removing hardship from the world, I’d want younger generations to be able to tackle them fearlessly.

There will be tragic events one faces throughout a lifetime that nobody has control over, but what we do have control over is how we handle them, and that’s a skill to develop. We’re not just born with it.

That’s probably what I’d want emphasized in schools if there’s going to be any mental health education at all (which frankly, I wouldn’t frame as “mental health” education, but more like basic life skills).

Ari Blaff:

I couldn’t agree more and yet, unfortunately, I think this brings us back to square one because of the role/impact of parenting. The phenomenon of “Helicopter Parents” now has a statistical basis that speaks to some children being emotionally coddled. Here’s one blurb from two journalists at The New York Times:

In a new poll by The New York Times and Morning Consult of a nationally representative group of parents of children ages 18 to 28, three-quarters had made appointments for their adult children, like for doctor visits or haircuts, and the same share had reminded them of deadlines for school. Eleven percent said they would contact their child’s employer if their child had an issue.

Sixteen percent of those with children in college had texted or called them to wake them up so they didn’t sleep through a class or test. Eight percent had contacted a college professor or administrator about their child’s grades or a problem they were having.

The discrepancy between parenting approaches, compounded by the fractiousness of disparate corners of the mental health profession makes this task quite difficult. I’m guessing there are a fair bit of helicopter parents out there that likely view important words such as “resilience,” “trauma,” “fear,” as things in need of medicalization instead of self-growth.

When the gulf is that broad, it’s hard to bridge the gap.

Mane Kara-Yakoubian:

I wonder about the causal direction, though.

Is it children who are growing increasingly unskilled in this regard, and parents have to mitigate that to prevent their life from going completely sideways? Or is it parents raising them like that, thus, the children never develop the skills?

It would be pretty cruel for parents to just let their children flunk out of school, for example, so that it would be a “life lesson.”

Ari Blaff:

That’s an interesting question. I’d have to look into the literature more deeply on that one.

As to your second point: that’s the crux of the matter! How do we define and delineate a growing/life lesson from something which needs genuine help?

Mane Kara-Yakoubian:

Apparently, there’s some studies that show parenting plays little role in child development. But I reject that lol!

Ari Blaff:

That’s fascinating! Would you mind sending an example of a paper like that? Would love to read the abstract –

Mane Kara-Yakoubian:

https://quillette.com/2015/12/01/why-parenting-may-not-matter-and-why-most-social-science-research-is-probably-wrong/

M.Y.A. Writer

I found this comment provided further context on Judith Rich Harris’ work (and confirms some of our intuition that parents can indeed play a role):

Editorial: Weekly Discourse - Should Schools Provide Kids Mental Health Resources?, Editorial Board

As Mane has mentioned earlier, the goal is to correct for behaviours that society can agree are a detriment to the child (like being overly aggressive, extreme distrust, and other neuroses). Naturally, any kind of coddling and the interference of “Helicopter” parents would and should be discouraged. Part of the early “child development” program would be to educate the parents as much as the children (so they are not frightened and stay in the “know” on matters concerning their child).

As to Mane’s earlier question — “Is it children who are growing increasingly unskilled in this regard, and parents have to mitigate that to prevent their life from going completely sideways? Or is it parents raising them like that, thus, the children never develop the skills? — this was the exact same question I was asking myself and the article you linked helped clarify some things (for me at least).

The conclusion Tinca Polderman and her colleagues (JRH being most notable) reached upon extensive review of twin studies can match with a lot of anecdotal experiences as well as those often depicted in pop culture. (In this lens, we can view pop culture as an agent that perpetuates common or relatable human experiences as they have a profit incentive to do so).

How many times have we witnessed the “rebellious phase” in teenagers coming into shape in a variety of forms? From the quote I linked above, we can see what prior research has said about social groups is the key. The way children diverge from their parents often relates to what their social groups (i.e. what they consider to be the “cool group” in school) foster and help retain (known as optional skills/opinions/knowledge).

Put more succinctly, a child’s “rebellious phase” is as diverse in form as the groups they belong to. Statistically, a parent’s influence is only as strong as what “the group” allows.

Now the causal question becomes: But what makes “groups of people” decide to be the way they are? I believe the answer once again lies in the early stages of development. Children seem to form groups mirroring adult group typology as early as the age of 5 (Lickel B et al. Varieties of groups and the perception of group entitativity). Given how neocortex development doesn’t fully begin until 7-8, we can see the impact of “pure and primal” genetic predispositions and temperament here — as early as the age of 5!

Now let’s bring it all back: We can see the impact of social groups, genetics, and even the home environment. We also understand that our genetics and our enabling or disabling social group (and to a lesser, but still important degree, our parents) begins to shape who we are at an earlier stage than we originally thought.

Taking this knowledge and incorporating it into early childhood education and correcting for maladaptive behaviours in groups (as the old saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child…”) and reinforcing COPING strategies for future prosperity and resiliency seems like the biggest win. Naturally this takes out some of the agency parents perceive they have anyway, but I believe educating them and creating greater awareness on where and how they have an impact could go a long way.

The social benefits of turning public education on its head and transforming it into an actual institution that prepares your child for the world seem incredible. Fostering good behaviours and discouraging “bad ones” in groups also serves the purpose of removing “the individual” from the picture. (Hyper individuality and treating people only as individuals seems so rampant in western psychology, which I think is a whole other topic itself lol.)

Interestingly enough (and as an aside), Native American and Canadian cultures struck a beautiful balance between individuality and “the community”. They had notions and understandings of “the self” that are less at odds with the current climate today (your spirit self can have many forms and it may be female/male or a mix regardless of your biological self).

This is a more visual representation of what I’m trying to get at:

Editorial: Weekly Discourse - Should Schools Provide Kids Mental Health Resources?, Editorial Board

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was heavily inspired by his time with the Blackfoot peoples. It is not surprising to see (he give no credit) the emphasis on the individual in his version. That being said, I believe Maslow’s hierarchy is more befitting our current state under capitalism. People today have so so so many material needs to focus and acquire first. It’s become increasingly hard to find time and energy for just yourself and your personal goals these days. (The trend is that working 40hr+ weeks is becoming normal and more of an expectation, especially in fields like computer science).

THE REASON I mention this is that all our proposed initiatives and reforms and adults self-educating themselves (or attending courses) for better mental resiliency in future generations doesn’t work with society’s current allotted “free-time budget”. There would have to be band-aid solutions (that luckily can be good long-term, however), such as schools receiving far more funding and serving as daycare centers where parents are encouraged to leave their kids at for better socializing (done by professionals).

There’s a part of me that wants to be more ambitious and propose a 3-tier schooling system ALSO serving as homes for orphans/fosters/etc. with professional and well-paid night nurses and care, but I think I have already typed way too much.

Ari Blaff:

I feel where you are coming from and unfortunately within the bounds of society as it’s currently organized it’s really tough to consider swathes of free time for mental health. Perhaps this is a transitional feature of us moving from an economy that was post-industrial to technology-immersive.

Despite mental health concerns soaring throughout the pandemic, I believe that we are beginning to see the crystallization of important developments that will ultimately rebalance work/life concerns. Principal among these is flexible work hours and work from home capability. Evidently, the benefits are weighed (momentarily) against the inability to go anywhere but your own home, but with the refashioning of traditional working roles, we very well could see a greater gender balance of housework responsibilities, childcare leave, and greater time spent child-rearing (although early research suggests otherwise).

These, in the long run, alongside greater awareness of mental health issues and the impact of social media addiction may go a long way to soothing the crisis youth currently find themselves in. I’m still a little skeptical of the upside of government intervention given the diversity of mental health care viewpoints on the issue, but I think the trajectory is headed in the right direction long-term.

M.Y.A. Writer

100%. I’m cautiously optimistic! Especially with encouragement and pressure from society emphasizing social interaction beyond technology! I don’t think there’s a professional (worth their salt) in the world that believes online interaction can fully replace a “real human” one!

The Editorial Board
We are the team behind Speakeasy. A group of journalists, academics, and professionals united in the effort to find compelling writing and liberated thought. We pride ourselves on being self-appointed, first-rate, pseudo-intellectuals.

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