The Residue Left on Mental Health and the Future of our Students

By Kira Hawkins

Is it possible that the roots of the term “mental health” are keeping it tied down from modern goals and causing services to be less accessible to students? The term “mental hygiene,” was a beginning point for mental health terminology from the 1930s and was as sterile as it sounds. It was paired with a diagnosis and often hospitalization, buzzing with research, and psychiatric activities. Mental hygiene as a whole concept associated itself with a lack of health. In 1946, the World Health Organization was created and began to use the terminology “mental health”.

We currently use “mental health” as the Dalai Lama uses “emotional hygiene,” knowing oneself through intentional thought processes, discussions, and exercises that lead to being more self-aware. In essence, what we would hope our children can have access to in schools: clinicians who can meet tangled or elevated emotions and help to untangle them.

As an educator who devoted ten years to the individual needs of students, conferring with and joining them on their daily life experiences, I now work alongside clinicians serving students in over eleven states. Across the country schools are finding a rising need for access to counselors, social workers, and school psychologists for the well-being of all students. These departments rarely exist as their own entity to serve all students that may have a short or long-term need. Clinicians are often tied to the special education departments and the assessments and service needs in those departments. Often, the funding is not there to support whole-school mental health needs or initiatives, despite the continuing rise in those needs.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 20% of students experience some form of a mental health problem during their years in school. The residue we cannot shake? Stigma and inadequate access to resources and funded clinicians, which accounts for 60% of those students not receiving mental health services. As a society we are claiming mental health is acceptable, important, and pertinent. The problem? The association between a lack of health and mental health is still so deeply rooted, that as parents, educators, administrators and policymakers, we have to intentionally shed the residual grime that accessing help for mental health concerns is somehow a problem or deficiency.

We have to find ways to break from the ignominy of asking for help and begin conversations about equipping schools with resources, instead of marveling when they manage to find funding dollars left at the bottom of the fiscal barrel. The term mental health may have come a long way from its sterile origins, but there undoubtedly remains something about it that indicates a lack instead of the positive aspirations we have for it in 2020. There are residues that need tending to, so we can start serving all students again.

Kira Hawkins served as an educator for ten years, teaching children in Texas, Zambia and, remotely, in China. She provided dyslexia specialty training and focused on interventions for academic and emotional support of all students. You can find her and her two boys in her bamboo jungle or planting heirlooms of just about anything. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.