Vote for the Best of STL!

Mental illness prevention

Stephanie Smarr | Op-Ed Submission

Perhaps you have seen the new series, “This Emotional Life,” which first aired on PBS in January. On the show, mental illnesses are described as diseases with physical bases. Read: no different than physical illnesses—except that mental illnesses impair psychological functioning.

This message on television is a positive sign, yet mental health continues to take the backseat to physical health—in our health care system and in society.

Most mental health services are currently treatment-based versus preventative in nature. But like physical illness, mental illness is not inevitable. With the proper prevention methods, the development of mental disorders might be avoided.

Targeting youth with these interventions is critical. Oftentimes mental illness develops in adolescence and young adulthood. Feelings of sadness, anxiety and anger can fester and become debilitating. We have to help kids become more emotionally self-aware. This can help them better recognize their emotional suffering so they can seek help.

What would this look like? In elementary school, teachers could teach students about emotions. During the middle and high school years, efforts to improve students’ emotional intelligence could continue. Students would learn how their emotions are tied to specific thoughts and physical sensations in the body. This would aid in the development of emotion regulation, meaning students would learn to influence the course of their emotions by changing the way they think in response to stressors.

The beautiful thing is that these are life skills we are talking about. Everyone would benefit, including both those genetically prone to developing mental illness and those who are not.

Let’s face it: Growing up is not easy for anyone. Adolescents must navigate the journey from childhood to adulthood and all it entails: puberty, asserting independence from parents, identity formation and so on.

Complicate this with our fast-paced, technological and hyper-sexualized society. Children are forced to grow up faster than ever before. They face novel challenges, like online bullying and sexting. Now, more than ever, we need to equip youth with an emotional skill-set to help them be resilient and deal with adversity.

The odds of this happening in the current environment are extremely low. Many schools have already cut recess and art and music programs. It’s such a shame. We are not teaching youth to balance work and play. This alone is not good for emotional health.

We really are failing our youth. A great deal of suffering could be prevented, or at least minimized, if we were to start teaching life skills to youth to cope with daily stressors.

Fewer kids would be robbed of some of the most important developmental years of their lives—the years when their peers are discovering their identity, dating and exploring intimacy. Because the fact of the matter is, these years are irreplaceable and many people are suffering silently.

It’s time we start intervening sooner. We owe it to our kids.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.