Mental Illness and Social Maladies

How Primary School Education Can Make a Difference

Mentally ill — what images are produced when you hear that diagnosis? A disheveled older man yelling to himself on the corner? You might be right. The working mother who seeks therapy once a week? Maybe. What you probably don’t picture is a teenager or a young child, yet one in five adolescents under the age of 18 experiences the disruptive effects of mental illness each year. Recent research suggests that only half of the four million youths affected by mental illness receive the services that they need to live healthy, happy lives. Avoidance of mental health services is often due to inadequate understanding of symptoms, limited knowledge of resources, or embarrassment owing to the overwhelming stigma surrounding the label. Unfortunately, failure to receive sufficient treatment is hazardous not only to individuals personally affected but to the public, as well.

Allowing mental illness to go untreated has adverse bearings on communities, leading to social problems such as self-harm, crime, and homelessness. How does this impact our city? Research suggests that youth suffering from mental illness are at an increased risk of becoming incarcerated or developing dependence on illegal substances. There is also a recognized link between mental illness and physical ailments; currently, poor mental health is ascribed as the primary root of disability across the globe. When suicide is a leading cause of death for adolescents in California, 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system face at least one mental health challenge, and 50 percent of Santa Barbara’s homeless population are considered mentally ill, there is a clear indication that we have a prevalent problem in our community.

Santa Barbara is home to plenty of mental health services, but if individuals don’t understand their own health, aren’t aware of these resources, or are afraid to seek help due to social typecasting, then all of the remarkable services our city and county have to offer will never be put to use, and the social issues so often linked to mental illness will continue to unwaveringly transpire.

How do we change the statistics? Senate Bill (SB) 330, led by the efforts of Alex Padilla, has recently been chaptered into law, recommending the addition of mental health curriculum to our public primary schools. Mental health education would not only decrease stigma and encourage access of resources to adolescents suffering from illness, but it would also encourage community wellness by addressing the social maladies that are often linked to mental illness. Unfortunately, due to a 2011 bill (SB 70), modifications to instructional materials cannot be made until the 2015-2016 school year. With approximately one year to organize, current attention needs to be placed on this legislation so that materials are ready to be presented to the State Board of Education when SB 70’s postponement comes to an end. There is an estimated cost of $80,000 for the service of a mental health and education work group, and funds need to be raised, but given the immense savings that would be delivered to non-mental health facilities, which so often are left to deliver unanticipated services, as well as the positive impact on the community’s well-being, this tab should be a minor detail to potential stakeholders.

Santa Barbara has attempted mental health education in the past with their implementation of “Mental Health Matters”; it is clear that the topic is understood to be important to our city and to our youth. With that said, we should do what we can to help the legislation along and successfully implement new mental health materials into our districts’ curriculum. If we want our children to experience ample well-being and our streets to begin clearing of those who suffer poor mental health, we need to raise a generation of individuals who understand mental illness and are educated on services that can provide aid. We need to present public support for this legislation, and we need to make sure that it does not fall by the wayside, forgotten like so many of those suffering without knowledge of how or where to find help.

Samantha Bielawski is working toward a master’s in social work at the University of Southern California and has been involved in outreach among juveniles and the homeless population along Santa Barbara’s State Street.

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