The Future of Mental Health Education

June 28, 2017 Mel Lee-Smith

We need to make mental health education mandatory in public schools. Healthy adults start in the classroom, and there's no reason why the US can't do it.

The future of mental health education is, unsurprisingly, a popular topic here at HealthyPlace. That’s because it’s largely absent from the national curriculum, even though nearly 20% of children show signs of mental illness each year. 1 Approximately 60% of those children don’t receive mental health treatment. The future of mental health education is important.

Mental Health Education in School: An Absence We Shouldn't Overlook

Blaming schools for not doing enough is easy, but it’s not that simple. The modern education system is akin to a bureaucracy. This system is best summed up in a 1967 paper titled Bureaucratic Organization and Educational Change: 2

“The traditional organization is often more concerned with production than with what should be produced. Therefore, identification with educational needs is often lost in organizational management; children have served organizational needs more than their educational needs have been served.

(Bold added.)

Forty years later, this imbalance still exists and is further compounded by federal education funding. Even though American public schools are already underfunded,3 the U.S. Department of Education will cut $9 billion from the federal education budget in 2018, a reduction of 13%.4

But evidence shows that implementing mental health education will actually save money in the long run. The Seattle Social Development Project estimated that schools with a mental health education program can help students avoid severe social problems associated with mental illness while providing a benefit of nearly $10,000 per student.5

The Good News about Mental Health Education

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has implemented a Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT) for assessing the quality of mental health education in the United States.6 The HECAT outlines the key components of a complete mental health education: conflict prevention and management, impulse control, relationship maintenance, and stress management, among others. This outline starts in kindergarten and continues until 12th grade (Discuss Mental Illness and Suicide with College Students).

On paper, this sounds great. However, schools are not required to complete the HECAT to receive federal funding; it is entirely optional. That means mental health education often isn’t a priority for schools that need additional funding. So far, the CDC doesn’t provide information on how many schools complete the HECAT each year, which makes it difficult to gauge how many schools in America provide mental health education.

Despite that, the number of schools that offer mental health services is rising. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, more than 2,000 schools across the country7 now offer mental health services to more than two million students. As of 2009, the number of schools employing a mental health professional had doubled since 1999.8

Robert W Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore recently went viral for offering meditation instead of detention for “unruly” students. The school also provides the Holistic Me After-School Program, which teaches children meditation, yoga, mindful breathing, and conflict management. According to a fourth-grade student enrolled in the program, “Meditation calms me down and stuff.”

Mental Health Education and My Story

One of my former professors once said, “We can only view the world through the lens of our own experience.”

Naturally, when I talk about the lack of mental health education, I can’t help but think about how it’s affected me.

I self-harmed throughout high school. At first, I convinced myself it was just a phase. By the time senior year rolled around, I sensed there was something more to it, that perhaps there was something wrong with me (How to Talk to Your College Student about Mental Illness).

Two months after I started university, I had a mental breakdown. I admitted myself to the hospital and was referred to an outpatient psychiatrist. She diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder. Had mental health education been offered at my school, I might have recognized the signs of mental illness and received diagnosis and treatment much earlier.

My story is just one of more than two million each year. I was just one of more than 1.3 million students who didn’t receive help or treatment because we didn’t know what to look for.

Final Thoughts on Mental Health Education

Although mental health education hasn’t been widely implemented yet, things are looking up. The CDC has created a framework for mental health education, and the number of schools offering mental health services is on the rise.9 However, budget cuts from the powers that be threaten the longevity of such progress. Additionally, offering mental health services isn’t enough; we must make mental health education part of the curriculum. To do this, the HECAT and similar initiatives must be mandatory.

What's the bottom line? The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. There is no excuse, monetary or otherwise, for failing to teach our children about mental health during their formative years.


  1. Mental Health Surveillance Among Children — United States, 2005–2011. Center for Disease Control, accessed June 29.2017.
  2. Bureaucratic Organization and Educational Change. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASDC), accessed June 29, 2017.
  3. More Than 40% of Low-Income Schools Don't Get a Fair Share of State and Local Funds, Department of Education Research Finds. Department of Education, accessed June 29. 2017.
  4. America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again., accessed June 29, 2017.
  5. Facts About School Mental Health Services. Seattle Social Development Project, accessed June 29, 2017.
  6. Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT). Center for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed June 29, 2017.
  7. Expanding school-based care. American Psychological Association, accessed June 29, 2017.
  8. Schools expand mental health care. American Psychological Association, accessed June 29, 2017.
  9. HECAT: Module MEH, mental and emotIonal health currIculum. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed June 29, 2017.

APA Reference
Lee-Smith, M. (2017, June 28). The Future of Mental Health Education, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 19 from

Author: Mel Lee-Smith

Mel Lee-Smith is a freelance writer, blogger, and editor fuelled by a lifelong passion for language (and coffee). She writes because she wants to make a difference. Connect with her on her websiteTwitter, Facebook, Medium or Google+.

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