MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS: Behavioral health legacy for Texoma

Andrea Mory
Special to the Herald Democrat
Andrea Mory

Across the U.S. there are a variety of ‘Mental Health Matters’ efforts aimed at increasing awareness, acceptance and resources for people with mental health challenges. These initiatives are typically developed through creative partnerships with national organizations, community mental health, school districts, grass-roots efforts, faith-based groups and others. After many years of struggle, mental health issues are finally being seen and discussed more frequently in public arenas, in news articles and in workplaces. What has become clear is that the bottom line is education.

Positive change that is felt for decades is often only achieved through education that changes mindsets. Through education we see understanding and acceptance, then from greater acceptance can come allocation of resources towards improving mental health in a community. We have seen this education process begin to occur rapidly here in the Texoma area over the last 6 years. The education of community leaders, governmental leaders, industry CEOs and of healthcare leaders is integral in making change we can really feel, but how do we make change that is sustainable?

The Mental Wellness Center, located in Santa Barbara, California is a community-based non-profit mental health organization, that partnered with school educators in multiple school districts to develop an exceptional program that begins mental health education in the 6th grade. The program focuses on three points: (1) signs and symptoms of major mental health disorders, (2) stigma and how it affects our perceptions of mental illness and (3) wellness activities and practices. The State of California’s “Health Education Content Standards for California Public Schools” actually requires schools to include “mental, emotional and social health” as a content area. In the Santa Barbara area, leaders in mental health and education have run with this requirement and created a robust and sustainable program that will impact matters of mental health in their community for decades.

The program, called simply Mental Health Matters, is taught in 6th grade and 9th grade classrooms and includes a website with multimedia resources. The program utilizes a curriculum which covers symptoms and warning signs, stigma and ignorance surrounding mental health disorders, practice of wellness skills, understanding how behavioral health issues are treatable and the program actually reviews major mental health disorders in an easy to understand way. Students come away with a changed mindset and a different approach to mental health and people with mental health issues. Their testimonials tell the story best at www.mentalwellnesscenter.org.

Perhaps the most exciting piece of the Santa Barbara project is how the schools have partnered to create a leadership program on high school campuses. After having been through the middle school curriculum, high school students are introduced to the Youth Wellness Council which seeks to educate, empower and engage students in changing campus culture through connections, leadership learning, volunteers and teaching others. Weekly Club meetings are led by the Council members on each campus and are open to all students. Students conduct monthly wellness campaigns to raise awareness and reduce stigma around mental health by promoting self-care and kindness through connection, prevention, education and outreach activities. Once a year the program brings together students from multiple schools that are interested in serving a leadership role on their campus to participate in team-building exercises that build character, improve communication, and reduce prejudice and stigma around mental health.

We have learned from research that negative attitudes toward individuals with mental illness are developed as early as kindergarten and are pretty stable into adolescence (Weiss, 1986; Weiss, 1994). Further, we know that the stigma of mental health often results in exclusion of peers who are thought to have mental illness (Hennessy, Swords, and Heary, 2008). Most importantly though, research tells us that by the 5th grade, students are able to conceptualize mental illness in a fairly sophisticated way (Ventieri, Clark, and Hay, 2011). This tells us that middle school to high school really is the best time to start educating our community about mental health.

These programs may demonstrate the most impactful model yet seen, of how to create lasting, positive change in mental health … educate future local leaders. To make changes, of true legacy-proportion, for behavioral health in the Texoma area, could Texoma educators and behavioral health leaders consider a partnership like this one from Santa Barbara?

Andrea Mory is a management and human resources professional who resides in North Texas. She has collaborated across Texoma over the last 25 years with mental health providers and employers to develop training and education programs related to behavioral health.The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.